What you do in your spare time may influence your risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. A new study suggests that people who participate in intellectually stimulating hobbies during midlife are less likely to develop the devastating disorder.
Previous research has hinted that brainy individuals may have some protection against Alzheimer's. For example, people with more education and advanced careers are less prone to get it. But it was not clear from these studies if the benefit comes from more mental activity per se or from related advantages, such as a higher socioeconomic status. To avoid some of these complications, neurologist Robert Friedland and colleagues at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland turned their attention to what people do in their free time. Leisure activities, they reasoned, should provide a measure of overall activity that is less dependent of socioeconomic factors.
The researchers surveyed 193 Alzheimer's patients and 358 healthy volunteers about their recreational activities between the ages of 20 and 60. Questionnaires for Alzheimer's patients were filled out by a surrogate--typically the patient's spouse or another close relative. The survey included 26 different activities divided into three groups: physical activities; passive pastimes like watching TV; and intellectual activities, which ranged from reading and playing games to doing repairs around the house. People in the healthy control group participated in more activities in all categories than Alzheimer's patients did, the team reports in the March 13 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They also spent more time engaged in intellectual activities--about 12 more hours a month, on average. The only activity that Alzheimer's patients had engaged more in was watching TV, Friedland says.
One explanation is that inactivity in midlife is an early indicator of Alzheimer's disease, says neurologist David Bennett, director of the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago. But he tends to believe that using your mind and keeping busy may protect against Alzheimer's disease and other types of cognitive decline. "If it's true, it would have just tremendous public health and public policy implications," Bennett says. Future campaigns, he says, might encourage people to turn off the TV and turn on their brains.
Robert Friedland's lab at Case Western Reserve University 
Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center 
Information on Alzheimer's from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke 
The Alzheimer's Association