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Participants who did no brain exercises had more rapid memory decline than those who did them daily.
Participants who did no brain exercises had more rapid memory decline than those who did them daily.

Brain teasers may help stave off memory loss Add to ...

Harry Morris rises each morning at 6 a.m. and pores over the newspaper, studying it "front to back and back to front." Two hours later, when his wife Kathleen gets out of bed in their Winnipeg home, he gets her to quiz him on the crime and politics stories of the day.

Mr. Morris, 78, said his memory has been fading for the past four years and he's waged a battle against it by reading the newspaper, playing card games with his wife, and tackling a book full of brain teasers.

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New research suggests he may be on to something.

A study published in today's issue of Neurology, the journal of the American Academy of Neurology, suggests people destined to develop dementia can delay the onset of accelerated memory decline by doing leisure activities that exercise their brains.

In the early 1980s, a research team at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York enrolled 488 people aged 75 to 85 into the study, then continued to track the 101 participants who ended up developing dementia. Researchers asked those participants how many days a week they spent reading, writing, completing crossword puzzles, playing board or card games, participating in group discussions and playing music. Participants then took a word memory test about every 12 months to track their decline.

The study's authors found that participants who didn't do any brain-challenging exercises throughout the week lost their memory three times as quickly as those who did cognitive exercises seven days a week.

Over the span of 15 months, dementia patients who did no activities would experience a memory loss of 7.3 per cent. But if they logged seven activity days, their memory would only decline by 2.5 per cent in that same period.

Dementia researchers have debated which is better at staving off memory loss: working out your brain earlier in life through higher education and a challenging job, or later in life through mentally-stimulating activities.

Mr. Morris only went to high school until grade 10 and said he has never read a book cover to cover. He spent most of his life working as a machinist for CP Rail, a job he said was challenging, but didn't provide much intellectual stimulation.

But as he got older, he yearned to stay on top of local and world events, and got over his distaste for reading to pick up the habit of perusing the newspaper daily. That, along with weekly card games of rummy with his wife and practising his writing, may be working in his favour.

"There seems to be evidence that late-life activity may actually be important," said Charles Hall, the lead author of the study.

Mr. Morris's doctor has told him that in a few years, Alzheimer's disease will take a major hold of him, but Mr. Morris said his memory isn't slipping away as quickly as he'd expected.

"If [the decline is]at the same pace it has been at, I'm pretty lucky," he said. "If it's going, it's going slowly with me."

Dr. Hall stressed that cognitive activities such as reading and writing don't prevent Alzheimer's disease, but they can delay its onset.

While some dementia patients are now given medications to postpone the decline into the disease, Dr. Hall said they aren't a perfect treatment.

"They have some side effects that can be very significant. It's the reason a lot of clinicians are reluctant to prescribe them," he said.

But patients don't have to worry about that when it comes to filling out a crossword puzzle or picking up a round of Scrabble.

"What's really exciting is that this is something that doesn't have much of a down side," Dr. Hall said.

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