If you’ve ever busted your leg and had plaster on for a few weeks, you’ll see what happens to the muscles on the leg you’re not using. Skinny, puny, and kind of pathetic by comparison with the highly-tensioned steel springs of your other leg.
It’s a great example of the Use it or Lose it concept, whereby your muscles waste away, or atrophy, if they aren’t used.
Muscles in your mind?
Last time we took a quick spin through a couple of indicators and preventives for Alzheimer’s disease. Over the years, though, the preventive I’ve heard most commonly is, the old chestnut, “Use it or lose it…”.
We know that the concept of building mental muscles isn’t just a pretty metaphor. You might remember Baumeister and colleagues in their study on willpower, who showed that willpower uses energy and gets depleted, just like a muscle, and needs energizing with real food in order to function well. They suggest building willpower strength before we need it.
Which is great, but is it really true of the brain? If you don’t use your brain, will it actually, really, waste away, and are you then a sucker for Alzheimer’s or some other degenerative brain nasty?
What does it mean? And how do you do this anyway?
Biceps in your brain?
One of the more interesting pieces of work comes from an ongoing study that began all the way back in 1986. Affectionately called The Nun Study, it details the old age of a group of nearly 700 nuns who agreed to participate in the study and, when they had died, to donate their brains to science.
By virtue of their lifestyle, many factors that can affect research were already controlled. They had the same lifestyle, diet, alcohol consumption, income, housing, and so on, and were thus an extremely homogeneous (meaning similar or the same as each other) group.
They have already contributed to the body of work around aging, and continue to do so. Of particular note is the work around education and early predictors of later events, including what they call linguistic density, which is how complex and fluent your writing is. The higher the linguistic density then, the lower the risk of Alzheimer’s now. Have a look at the clip.
Now that we’re more than a quarter of a century on, hundreds of brains have been donated, which provides a rich opportunity to have a look at what really old brains look like, which brains show some pathology, and which are from those nuns who died from dementia. This clip comes from 2009, three years after three years after the first clip.
The nuns are useful for providing some early markers or signposts on the way to a diagnosis.
It’s here, I’m sure, that crossword creators and, more recently, Sudoku creators, have earned enough to buy a small country each. Puzzles, especially crosswords, have been a staple prescription for older folks for years. The prescription is based, as you will have guessed, on the use it or lose it principle.
By keeping the mind challenged, we ward off dementia, or at least keep it at bay for longer, or so the thinking goes. Additionally, because they tap into linguistic, verbal-type knowledge, crosswords may have an advantage in that require you to exercise some of the same mental muscles highlighted by the nuns’ linguistic density.
Sudoku, being mathematical, is obviously different, and asks different cognitive questions of us, while still providing a mental challenge. And, like crosswords, they range from the very easy to the fiendishly, mind-bendingly, complicated.
There’s no doubt that a difficult crossword or Sudoku can be mentally taxing. But is it enough to overcome the villains in Alzheimer’s?
While opinion has waxed and waned a little, it seems that these things are, truly, useful. The sinister component of Alzheimer’s disease is stuff called beta-amyloid. It’s a small chain of protein that, while normal to have floating around, causes unpleasant little piles called amyloid plaques in Alzheimer’s disease. You find these in the spaces around brain cells.
The other bad guys are what’s called neurofibrillary tangles, which are twisted bits of fiber within brain cells, made up of tau protein.
Plaques = piles of beta-amyloid outside brain cells
Tangles = knots of tau proteins inside brain cells
In a recent Archives of Neurology study, getting involved in cognitively stimulating activities seemed to slow down how quickly beta-amyloid is deposited. This suggests that early, and regular, mental stimulation, may help prevent, or at least delay, the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
Additionally, the tasks need to be interesting and varied. Doing more and more crossword puzzles will make you better and better at crosswords, and more Sudoku makes you better at Sudoku. What’s needed is a range of things that are stimulating.
So here’s the take home bit
For those of you who like lists, especially things that might not cost a whole bunch, use this:
- read – widely and often
- build friendships – social engagement is stimulating
- visit the library
- take a night class or two
- play games – alone and with others
- keep up the puzzles
- learn a new skill
- play music
- exercise and watch the carbs
- join a club
- learn a new language – yes, even at your age
Crucially, these are tasks to start early, as a preventive, in the years, say, from five to 40.
As an extra, you may have noticed a proliferation of brain training and brain fitness games online. We’ll tackle these next time.
Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat
Homogeneous, Tau proteins, beta-amyloid
What do you think?
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