Exercising your body and mind can help stave off memory problems as you age, and some of those benefits may be even greater for women, according to a new study.
The study looked at cognitive reserve, or the brain’s ability to resist the effects of illnesses like Alzheimer’s without showing any decline in thinking or memory skills.
Women, but not men, had greater cognitive reserves if they exercised regularly and attended classes, read, or played games. Participation in more mental activities improved thinking speed for women and men.
“Start building this cognitive reserve now, so the money is in the bank for later if our brains need it,” said study author Judy Pa. She is co-director of the Alzheimer’s Cooperative Study and professor of neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego.
“It’s never too early or too late to engage in physically and mentally stimulating activities, and it’s a good idea to try new activities to continue challenging the brain, mind and body to learn and adapt,” Pa said.
The study included 758 people (average age 76 years). Some participants showed no signs of thinking or memory problems, others had mild cognitive impairmentand some had full-blown dementia at the start of the study.
The participants underwent brain scans and took tests of thinking speed and memory. The researchers compared the scores of these tests to brain changes associated with dementia to calculate a cognitive reserve score.
Women who reported more physical activity had a greater thinking speed reserve, but this was not seen in men. Greater physical activity was not linked to better memory reserve in men or women. Women who read, attended classes, and played cards or games more frequently also had greater memory reserves.
The study was not designed to say how, or even if, these activities improved brain function, just that there is a connection.
Exactly why women seem to benefit more from these activities than men is not yet fully understood, Pa said.
“There is still work to be done in this area to better understand the differences seen in women and men, which may be related to the types of physical and mental activities undertaken by each sex/gender group,” he said. she stated. For example, women reported more group classes than men.
The researchers also examined how APOE4 genewhich increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, affected the results and found that this gene mediated the additional benefits of physical and mental activities on cognitive reserve in women.
The study had some limitations. People were asked to report their own physical and mental activity and may not have been accurately recalled.
The research was published online Wednesday in the journal Neurology.
It’s too early to draw firm conclusions about how mental and physical activities affect brain health in men or women, according to experts who were not involved in the study.
“It appears that the impact of self-reported physical and cognitive activities on cognitive reserve was more pronounced in women,” Dr. Howard Fillit said. He is co-founder and scientific director of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation in New York. “These are only associations, and further research is needed to confirm the results.”
Additionally, the researchers did not control for factors that might have affected the results, including the education level of the participants, Fillit said.
There are things you can do to protect and foster your cognitive reserve now, he said. “Exercise regularly, eat healthy Mediterranean style dietsleep well, avoid stress, alcohol and smoking, and manage your diabetes and high blood pressure,” Fillet advised. “The era of prevention has arrived, and we can delay the onset of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease or slow it down with these prevention methods.
There is also a role for testing the APOE4 gene in some people, he noted.
Such tests are readily available. “It is the physician’s job to inform, educate, and determine the patient’s attitude toward knowing their risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease, including genetic risk factors,” Fillet said. .
Not all carriers of APOE4 will develop Alzheimer’s disease, he pointed out. “Prevention measures may be even more important in people who carry this gene,” Fillet added.
Dr. Thomas Vidic is a Clinical Professor of Neurology at Indiana University and a Fellow of the American Academy of Neurology. “This article suggests that the effects of physical and mental activity for preventing cognitive decline or functioning better with Alzheimer’s disease are stronger in women than in men,” but that doesn’t mean men shouldn’t. not participate in these rewarding activities, he said.
“We’re still learning to measure cognitive reserve and we don’t know how much is important or how much we need to take to the next level,” Vidic said. It’s possible that different measures of cognitive reserve better reflect the benefits of these activities in men, he added.
The Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation offers more information on how to prevent age-related cognitive decline.
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