Mental Fitness the Best Defense Against Dementia?

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Research suggests that brain exercise might be just as important as physical exercise when it comes to lowering one’s risk for eventual cognitive decline. Ever since I started experiencing significant problems with my own memory about six years ago, I’ve been committed to maintaining physical fitness and following my neurologist’s advice to keep myself mentally challenged.

For some time now it’s been widely recommended that folks who want to reduce their risk for cognitive decline in their later years take extra care to eat a balanced diet rich in antioxidants and Omega-3 fatty acids, keep their weight within recommended guidelines, and get plenty of exercise. That’s because there’s lots of evidence that being physically fit is key to maintaining mental acuity for as long as possible. But evidence has also been mounting that exercising one’s brain might be just as important as physical exercise in lowering one’s risk for eventual cognitive decline.

A recent study conducted in the U.S. and published in the journal Neurology suggests there’s more reason than ever to believe that engaging in challenging mental activity helps stave off a decline in mental abilities. In fact, engaging frequently in stimulating mental exercises might even slow the rate of decline in individuals predisposed to dementia. According to the study’s lead author, Dr. Robert Wilson of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, “exercising” your brain with activities such as reading, writing, working crossword puzzles, and other mentally challenging tasks, and doing these things throughout your lifetime is important to maintaining brain health in older age. Data from the study indicated that individuals who regularly engaged in these activities performed much better on tests of memory and thinking.

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These most recent findings are similar to certain results from prior research on the role of mental activity in maintaining good cognitive health and provide additional support for the theory that good mental hygiene is just as important as physical fitness in preventing mental decline. A landmark study conducted at the University of California at Irvine was the first to suggest that mental stimulation is crucial to keeping memory strong. And a study at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University suggested that engaging in mentally stimulating activity even in later years can reduce the rate of cognitive decline. Another study has indicated that the brains of individuals who engaged in mentally stimulating activities throughout their lifetimes contain less of the b-amyloid protein involved in the formation of neuronal “plaques” and tangles thought to play a key role in Alzheimer’s Disease. Still, many scientists worry that the findings of these studies will be over-interpreted. And a statement from Dr. James Pickett at the Alzheimer’s Society in the UK cautions:

Most of us don’t exercise because we think it’s going to turn us into the next Andy Murray or Tour de France winner, but because it helps keep us fit. Increasing evidence now suggests a brain workout could also be useful for your cognitive health. This study finds that demanding mental activity can help protect your memory later in life, but it’s important to note this isn’t the same as protecting against dementia.

More research and bigger studies are needed, but in the mean time reading more and doing crosswords can be enjoyable and certainly won’t do you any harm. The best way to reduce your risk of developing dementia is to eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight.

While you certainly can’t draw firm conclusions from just one clinical case, I’d still like to offer my own personal testimony to the importance of both physical and mental fitness. About six years ago I began experiencing significant problems with my memory. I was having trouble remembering how to make out a check, remembering the names of my friends and relatives, problems finding words, and remembering things. As things progressed, I decided to stop my professional practice for fear I would inadvertently injure a client by failing to remember or record crucial information, and to undergo a thorough evaluation.

The initial diagnosis was of a mild cognitive impairment generally seen as a precursor to early onset Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). This was very sobering inasmuch as I’d lost my mother to AD just 8 months prior. But as time and repeated testing would reveal, the initial worries about Alzheimer’s proved premature. There were problems to be sure, the testing proved that. But the eventual consensus of the professionals treating me was that my cognitive issues were of vascular origin, and were likely in some way related to some mini-strokes I’d suffered several years earlier, one of which resulted in a fairly prolonged but transient global amnesia.

Suffice it to say, however, the whole ordeal provided me with a big wake-up call. I was overweight, my blood pressure was under only marginal control even with multiple medications, and my exercise regimen was nonexistent. I was completely unfit, and I decided to get really serious about my health. For the past year, I’ve maintained ideal body weight and muscle to fat ratio. My blood pressure is enviable for a person of 65. And in addition to maintaining physical fitness, I’ve followed my neurologist’s advice to keep myself mentally challenged, which is one of the reasons I read and write online articles every week. Some days, it’s a real challenge. Even the simplest words don’t look right and sentences I’ve written don’t make sense. But as my psychology training had already taught me and my experience has proven to me, the human brain has amazing plasticity and often adapts by having unimpaired areas take over the functions other areas once handled. So when I keep at it, despite the difficulties I sometimes experience, things inevitably get a bit better. All these efforts have resulted in a rate of progression of my illness that’s often too slow to even detect. And the medicines I take (one to increase inter-neuron transmission activity and another to reduce the overproduction of a particular neurotransmitter) have proved a true godsend. My diet is rich in antioxidants and Omega-3 fatty acids and I’m absolutely committed to staying in the best possible shape both physically and mentally.

And while there are times when it takes me hours on end to fashion even one short article, I’m determined to keep reading as well as writing and challenging my brain in as many other ways as possible. It’s my sincere hope that others continue to find benefit in the articles I write. I know the benefits I’ve found: the pure joy of reaching out to others, discussing important issues, sharing knowledge, and on top of all that, staying mentally fit!

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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