Increased Cognitive Activity in Early Life Decreases Progression to Alzheimer’s Dementia

by Dr Sam Girgis on January 23, 2012

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of cognitive impairment known as dementia.  In the early stages of the disease, cognitive impairment becomes manifest as episodes of minor memory deficits.  As the disease progresses, the symptoms can include confusion, irritability, language difficulty, aggression, and loss of long term memories.  These symptoms cause societal isolation and withdrawal from family and friends.  The afflicted individual eventually loses the ability to perform necessary activities of daily living.  One of the key hallmarks of the disease is the deposition of beta amyloid plaques into the brains of the afflicted individuals.  Researchers, lead by Dr. Susan Landau from the University of California at Berkeley, have shown that increased cognitive activity in early and middle life can prevent the progression to Alzheimer’s disease later in life.  The results of their study were published online in the Archives of Neurology.  Their investigation used a cross sectional clinical study designed to assess the association between lifestyle factors and beta amyloid deposition.  Beta amyloid deposition was assessed with positron emission tomography (PET) using carbon 11-labeled Pittsburgh Compound B.  The study compared 65 normal adult volunteers enrolled in the Berkeley Aging Cohort with 10 patients with Alzheimer’s disease.  College students with a mean age of 24 were used as a control.  The investigators also used retrospective self reporting of participation in cognitive activities, such as reading, writing, and playing games.  After accounting for variables such as age, sex, and years of education, the researchers found that greater participation in cognitive activities in early and middle life was associated with reduced uptake of carbon 11-labeled Pittsburgh Compound B on PET scan and progression to Alzheimer’s disease.  The authors wrote, “Individuals with greater early- and middle- life cognitive activity had lower [carbon 11-labeled Pittsburgh Compound B] uptake. The tendency to participate in cognitively stimulating activities is likely related to engagement in a variety of lifestyle practices that have been implicated in other studies showing reduced risk of [Alzheimer’s]-related pathology. We report a direct association between cognitive activity and [carbon 11-labeled Pittsburgh Compound B] uptake, suggesting that lifestyle factors found in individuals with high cognitive engagement may prevent or slow deposition of beta-amyloid, perhaps influencing the onset and progression of [Alzheimer’s disease]”.  These results are exciting because they identify one way to decrease or possibly eliminate the onset of dementia in older age.



Susan M. Landau et al. “Association of Lifetime Cognitive Engagement and Low Beta-Amyloid DepositionArch Neurol published online January 23, 2012 doi:10.1001/archneurol.2011.2748

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