The wrath of Alzheimer’s

If you’re on the less-desirable side of 60 and you’re reading this, you probably have a strong chance of delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia.  But that’s where the good news ends.  A team of researchers from Chicago have discovered that mentally engaging activities may prolong the arrival of this dreaded old-age curse, but if the disease does set in, it will devour an enlightened brain at a much faster rate than an uninitiated one.

Almost a hundred years after the discovery of Alzheimer’s, Robert Wilson’s team from the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Centre of Chicago has presented a study which demonstrates the vengeful nature of this disease. Starting in the early 1990s, Wilson and his colleagues monitored 1157 participants over the age of 65, in four neighbourhoods of Chicago. Their findings revealed a much greater rate of decline in mentally stimulated seniors who contracted Alzheimer’s Disease as compared to those who remain relatively unengaged in mental exercise, before being affected by AD. But what really happens is that cognitively-charged brains were able to mask the onset of age-related dementia, which once discovered would hastily progress due to the pathological burden already present on the individual’s mind.

The team conducted its survey by asking each participant to rate their involvement in seven information-processing activities. These included watching television, listening to radio, reading newspapers, reading magazines, reading books, playing cards and games and visiting museums. The seniors had to rate them on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 representing a daily engagement with the activity and 1 representing very little or no involvement at all. The individuals were also analysed for symptoms of AD and dementia. This exercise was repeated in the same neighbourhood every three years completing five whole cycles. Data revealed that for those without AD, the rate of decline on the activity scale was 52 percent per point, but for those with AD, the decline was 42 percent higher for each point, than the rate of normal decline.  These results may offer bleak consolation to senior citizens who are paying attention to ward of mental decline and inactivity, but as Wilson says, “cognitively stimulated individuals with AD lived their lives (before AD) always getting a little bit more out of what they had.”

This study shows that Alzheimer’s tends to ‘catch up’ and make up for lost time, but it definitely raises certain questions about its ability to represent a larger group of people.  Can results from a small population in southern Chicago establish a generalization for all of America or, for that matter, the world? Srikant Sarangi, a biomedical researcher at Boston University points out this very limitation, “the study is a good start but it’s not valid enough based on this sample set. It should, perhaps, even consider individuals younger than 65 as there are increasing cases of AD from people in their 50s.”


Wilson, R.S. PhD; Barnes, L.L. PhD; Aggarwal, N.T. MD; Boyle, P.A. PhD; Hebert, L.E. ScD; Mendes de Leon, C.F. PhD; Evans, D.A. MD, Cognitive Activity and the Cognitive Morbidity of Alzheimer’s Disease, Neurology, Vol 75(11), Pg 990-996

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