The Big Number: Staying mentally active as you grow older may delay onset of Alzheimer’s by up to 5 years

Keeping your brain active later in life may delay by as much as five years the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia. Research published in the journal Neurology found that cognitively stimulating activities that involve seeking or processing information — such as reading books, magazines or newspapers, writing letters, playing card games, board games or checkers, and doing puzzles — seemed to add dementia-free time to older people’s lives. The research involved 1,903 people (average age was 80), none of whom had dementia at the start of the study and who were tracked and tested for up to 22 years. In that time, 457 participants developed Alzheimer’s. That occurred on average at age 94 for people who did the most brain-stimulating activities later in life, compared with developing Alzheimer’s at age 89 for those with the least amount of cognitive activity. Alzheimer’s, considered a degenerative brain disease, affects memory, thinking and behavior, with symptoms eventually becoming severe enough to interfere with once-routine daily tasks. Today, about 6.2 million Americans 65 and older have the disease, two-thirds of them women, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. That number is expected to reach nearly 13 million by 2050, unless ways are discovered to prevent, cure or slow the disease. The researchers found that neither education nor cognitive activity early in life were associated with the age at which a person developed Alzheimer’s. Rather, it’s what you do later in life that seems to make a difference. And, as the lead author of the story said, “It’s never too late to start doing the kinds of inexpensive, accessible activities” tracked in the study, “even in your 80s.”

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