These Activities May Help Prevent Alzheimer’s, Study Says

Mass General and Harvard research says cognitive exercises may have some benefits.


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One of the scariest things about Alzheimer’s is that it’s all but impossible to prevent. Research from Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, however, says certain behaviors may indeed decrease your risk.

The study supports the notion that cognitive exercises—such as puzzles, reading, playing games, and attending cultural events—may help protect the brain against dementia. That’s not a new finding, but it’s an answer to skeptics who have questioned whether the evidence is strong enough to suggest cause and effect.

The Mass General and Harvard team conducted a bias analysis of 12 published studies, assessing factors like patients’ socioeconomic status and mental health history, and concluded that cognitive activities probably do have some positive effects on brain health.

“While it is possible that socioeconomic factors such as educational level might contribute to the association between cognitive activity and reduced risk, any bias introduced by such factors is probably not strong enough to fully account for the observed association,” Deborah Blacker, director of Mass General’s Gerontology Research Unit and senior author of the paper, said in a statement.

The researchers do note that long-term clinical trials will be necessary to determine whether brain exercises can actually ward off Alzheimer’s, or if it’s simply that healthy people tend to be the ones reading, puzzling, and gaming often, while those who are already experiencing the effects of dementia have reduced cognitive activity.

Further, there’s no such thing as fool-proof Alzheimer’s prevention; the disease is highly complicated, and deeply rooted in family history and genetics. Resorting to cognitive exercises can’t hurt, but they’re not a cure all—or even of definitive benefit.

“Remember that any impact will be relative, not absolute,” Blacker said. “I typically advise people to engage in cognitive activities that they find interesting and enjoyable for their own sake.”