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WAYNE YOUNG: Better health, one crossword at a time

A study presented last week in London at the international Alzheimer’s Association conference suggests one in three cases of dementia could be delayed or even prevented if more people tested their brain with activities like crossword puzzles throughout life.
A study presented last week in London at the international Alzheimer’s Association conference suggests one in three cases of dementia could be delayed or even prevented if more people tested their brain with activities like crossword puzzles throughout life.

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, word-search 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 post-secondary 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).

 

 

Wayne Young is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.

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