One crossword at a time

Study sug­gests keep­ing a sharp mind may re­duce risk of de­men­tia

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Wayne Young Wayne Young is an in­struc­tor in the jour­nal­ism pro­gram at Hol­land Col­lege in Char­lot­te­town.

Solv­ing a crossword puz­zle – or at least hav­ing fun try­ing – was a favourite pas­time of my late mother, es­pe­cially in her se­nior years.

She read a news­pa­per ev­ery day to stay on top of the lat­est sto­ries and ads, but her en­ter­tain­ment started when she ar­rived at the back pages. There, she’d find cross­words, word­search puz­zles, Su­dokus and Cryp­to­quotes. And ev­ery one had to be com­pleted (or at least at­tempted) be­fore the pa­per was re­tired.

A study pre­sented last week in Lon­don at the in­ter­na­tional Alzheimer’s As­so­ci­a­tion con­fer­ence sug­gests she may have been get­ting a lot more than en­joy­ment out of her puz­zles. It sug­gests one in three cases of de­men­tia could be de­layed or even pre­vented if more peo­ple looked af­ter their brain through­out life.

Keep­ing her brain sharp by do­ing daily puz­zles no doubt was a form of cog­ni­tive train­ing for my mother, a life­style habit the study sug­gests may of­fer a “mod­est” ef­fect in keep­ing de­men­tia away.

Other life­style fac­tors iden­ti­fied in the study that may re­duce the risk of de­men­tia were the usual sus­pects for a lot of our mal­adies – smok­ing, phys­i­cal in­ac­tiv­ity, high blood pres­sure and obe­sity. A few oth­ers were sur­pris­ing. The study sug­gests mid-life hear­ing loss ac­counts for nine per cent of de­men­tia risk. Why? Re­searchers said this can deny peo­ple a “cog­ni­tively rich en­vi­ron­ment” and lead to so­cial iso­la­tion and de­pres­sion – two of the other life­style risk fac­tors flagged in the study. Re­searchers also sug­gested that fail­ing to com­plete post­sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion might in­crease the risk of de­men­tia. They rea­soned that peo­ple who con­tinue to learn through­out life are likely to build ad­di­tional brain re­serves, strength­en­ing the brain’s net­works so it can con­tinue to func­tion in later life even if it is dam­aged.

All to­gether, the nine fac­tors add up to 35 per cent of de­men­tia risk fac­tors that are po­ten­tially mod­i­fi­able.

My mother, who died six years ago at 82, never suf­fered from de­men­tia. Although she had no post-sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion, I sus­pect she got plenty of “cog­ni­tive train­ing” as a mom who, by times, was also a seam­stress, nurse, me­di­a­tor, ed­u­ca­tor and ac­coun­tant who had to bud­get to raise a fam­ily of five on one sea­sonal in­come. Her life­style didn’t in­clude smok­ing or phys­i­cal in­ac­tiv­ity. She cer­tainly wasn’t obese or, as far as I know, de­pressed.

I find the re­sults of this study most en­cour­ag­ing in that it sug­gests de­men­tia isn’t only about ge­net­ics and the like­li­hood you’ll have it if it’s preva­lent in your fam­ily tree.

As I – like a grow­ing num­ber of Is­landers – near re­tire­ment age, the study of­fers a roadmap for mak­ing pos­i­tive life­style changes that may re­duce my own risk of de­men­tia.

Given there are cur­rently no drugs to pre­vent or cure this dis­ease, re­view­ing our life­style de­ci­sions so that we be­come more phys­i­cally, men­tally and so­cially ac­tive may be our best bet to re­duce the risk.

I think I’ll start small with a crossword puz­zle. Help me out with a nine-let­ter word end­ing in -ve de­fined as the men­tal pro­cesses of per­cep­tion, mem­ory, judg­ment and rea­son­ing. If you’ve fig­ured it out, we’ve both got­ten a lit­tle brain ex­er­cise. (The word is men­tioned in the fourth para­graph of this col­umn).

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