Alzheimer’s disease and brain games

plaques_tanglesFor most of us, the specter of Alzheimer’s Disease is the single most terrifying thing about growing older.

It’s an irreversible, progressive, and fatal disease which affects memory and the ability to think and reason.

In the early stages, a person may get lost and may have trouble handling money, completing daily tasks, expressing himself, and organizing his thoughts.

As the disease progresses, he may experience changes in behavior and personality and have problems recognizing family and friends. He may have hallucinations, delusions or paranoia.

In the late stages of the disease, he cannot communicate and is completely dependent on others for his care.

Take this Brain Tour

This excellent slide show by the Alzheimer’s Association shows how the brain works and how it is affected by Alzheimer’s Disease.

How many people are affected? 

Estimates are that currently 5.3 million people in the U.S. have Alzheimer’s Disease. Of those, 5.1 million are aged 65 or older. Another 200,000 people under the age of 65 have early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Because people are living longer these days, the number of people with Alzheimer’s Disease is projected to increase substantially over time. 

What are the risk factors for Alzheimer’s Disease?

The principal risk factor is age:  The likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s Disease doubles every 5 years after age 65. After age 85, the risk is nearly 50%.

Other risk factors are high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, stroke, and high cholesterol, family history, and genetics, specifically the APOE e4 gene mutation. This gene increases the risk that a person will get Alzheimer’s Disease but doesn’t determine for certain that she will.

But what actually causes Alzheimer’s Disease?

Scientists are not absolutely sure what causes cell death and tissue loss in the Alzheimer brain, but plaques and tangles are prime suspects.

Can you prevent or stave off Alzheimer’s Disease? 

An enormous amount of energy, research, time, and money has gone into looking for ways to delay Alzheimer’s Disease or prevent it altogether. Out of this effort has come some support for the “Use it or lose it” approach, specifically, doing these things to stave off the onset of  the disease:    

  • Eating a healthful diet, such as the Mediterrean diet
  • Keeping physically active through regular exercise
  • Keeping socially active with friends and family, community groups, and others, and  
  • Keeping mentally active, by doing cross-word puzzles, soduku, and computerized brain-fitness game

Do any of these things do any good?

 That’s the $64 million question. Any of them may stave off the onset of Alzheimer’s Disesase. But, then again, they may not. How do we really know? Recently, at least three major studies have been done in an attempt to find the answer.   

1.  Study of “brain fitness” products by Lifespan 

This meta-analysis (or review of all previous relevant, randomized, controlled studies) showed no evidence that “brain exercise” programs delay or slow progression of cognitive changes in healthy, elderly people .  

2. Study by England’s Medical Research Council and Alzheimer’s Society UK  

This study involved more than 11,000 people between the ages of 18 and 60 with the  results published in the journal Nature on April 20, 2010. Said the lead author Adrian Owen, assistant director of the Medical Research Council, 

Participants did get better at games they practiced. The more they trained, the better they got. But there was still no translation to any general improvement in cognitive function.

In other words, tests showed that their game scores improved but not their memory, reasoning or verbal abilities.

3.  US National Institutes of Health (NIH) meta-analysis of  studies published between 1984 and 2009    

An  independent expert panel—brought together by the NIH in April, 2010—issued a very bleak report on the state of knowledge of the disease. It concluded that the causes of Alzheimer’s disease are still unknown and that no reliable evidence has shown that anything can prevent the disease or stop it from progressing.

So, here’s my plan 

I’ve been skeptical all along of the crossword-puzzle, soduku, use-it-or-lose-it approach to delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. However, I’m something of a fanatic when it comes to eating healthy, physical activity, social activity, and mental activity (such as writing this blog post). I would be doing all these things with or without having some of the risk factors for Alzheimer’s Disease. So my basic plan is to keep doing what I’ve been doing and hope for the best.

As always, I would really appreciate your thoughts, comments, questions, and suggestions.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Di 08/28/2012, 2:56 pm

    Hi Madeleine
    Thank you for a superb blog and the replies and comments are so useful. I believe in keeping mentally fit therefore reading and writing much of the time and taking an active interest in current affairs, politics and health and well being.
    One thing I have done with a view to the future is to write a family memoir of my life – so far it only goes to the age of 20. I have researched a lot for it and scratched around for as many memories as I can think of. My view is that if I lose my marbles, those caring for me can refer to the book and see just what sort of life I led and how useful I was to society and to the younger generation (I taught young people 16+) It did occur to me that before I am too far gone I will be able to read the book and remind myself of things that I have forgotten. I am wondering if any other people reading your blog and the comments would consider doing something similar.
    Please drop by my blog and like or follow it if you find it useful. I will write a summary of what is present here and make a link to your blog. Keep up the good work.

    • Di 08/28/2012, 2:59 pm


      Madeleine please drop by my blog – url as above. I hope you like it. I also blog at where I have a healthy living blog. I shall put some of these comments on there and/or make links to your blog. Please like or follow my blog and I will follow back
      Di recently posted..Portsmouth Schools Music Festival 2012My Profile

  • Madeleine Kolb 08/04/2010, 10:27 pm

    Christopher, There are glimmers of hope, as you know, especially the recent development of a brain scan for plaques and tangles that can be done in people experiencing decline of cognitive function. Prior to that, the only definitive diagnosis could be done after a person had died.

    Personally, I’m running out of unhealthy stuff to give up, except for full-fat, full-flavor cheese. Thanks so much for the comment, Chris.

  • Christopher 08/04/2010, 5:13 pm

    Madeleine & Mark,

    One of my best friend’s grandmothers also had Alzheimer’s. She also happened to use an aluminum cutting board for decades!

    My friend now refuses to use it for obvious reasons. Luckily, we have found a correlation between aluminum and Alzheimer’s and can make people aware of them.

    Like you’ve said in various comments Madeleine, all you can do is do AS MANY OF THE RIGHT THINGS (take a holistic approach) and hope for the best. The fact is, just because a disease is idiopathic (we don’t know the cause yet) does NOT mean that it doesn’t have a cause. It is common sense that toxins damage the body. So why not reduce all undesirable toxins so at least you can choose your favorite ones? Mine being alcohol and the occassional binge on “unpaleo” foods.

    Good stuff Madeleine!

  • Madeleine Kolb 07/30/2010, 10:34 am

    Mark, I am so touched by your sharing the story of your grandmother’s illness. From what I’ve read, the effect of Alzheimer’s on a family is just devastating in so many ways. How demanding and difficult and completing draining it must be for a spouse or adult son or daughter to care for someone with this disease.

    “In the end an inability to speak, to recognise – just a constant shouting and wailing like an eighty year old new born child – terrified, helpless, lost. It’s a terrifying disease – I would rather be dead that suffer the loss of each human faculty in turn.”

    What a terrible way to end one’s life and even more terrible for you, if you have lovely memories of your grandmother in her younger years. I too have thought that I’d rather be dead than subject my daughter or my boyfriend to such a thing.

  • mark owen-ward 07/30/2010, 4:57 am

    this important article is a timely reminder for me. my grandmother developed alzheimer’s in the last ten years of her life. To start with, sadly, it was vaguely amusing, repeated stories, slightly quirky behaviours and an acknowledgment from my gran that things weren’t quite right – there was humour there and we shared in it. But with time the disease grew more rampant – my gran ceased to recognise her husband of 60 years as her husband and viewed him as an imposter who had moved into her home – to complicate things, she thought my father was her husband. It was distressing for all concerned. When she fell and broke her hip she had no will to recover and the disease accelerated. Double incontinence, huge weight loss, an inability to retain her dentures or wear glasses. In the end an inability to speak, to recognise – just a constant shouting and wailing like an eighty year old new born child – terrified, helpless, lost. It’s a terrifying disease – I would rather be dead that suffer the loss of each human faculty in turn. Anything that helps find a cure is to be welcomed for this most debasing and dehumanising of diseases.

    For one I know that my Gran always cooked with aluminium saucepans and so I avoid them like the plague, she was also addicted to sugar, white bread, cakes – a kind of post world war II reaction to rationing and she was diabetic too. Clearly, genetics play a key part too as her husband, my Grandfather was not affected. My only wish is that she could have kept more dignity in life at the end for her sake and those of her children.
    .-= mark owen-ward´s last blog ..Why we should avoid unemployment of the body =-.

  • Madeleine Kolb 06/29/2010, 8:07 pm

    Hi Aileen, Thanks for the comment.

    You can’t go wrong with eating healthy and getting plenty of physical exercise.

  • Aileen 06/29/2010, 3:16 pm

    Great post – we do need to be informed in order to make the best choices. – and although we don’t know for sure how to prevent it 100% , I agree with you – make healthy adjustments and “hope for the best.”
    .-= Aileen´s last blog ..5 Signs It’s Time To Let Go =-.

  • Madeleine Kolb 06/25/2010, 9:49 am

    @Angela, I think I’ve read this somewhere myself. I don’t know whether it contributes to Alzheimer’s Disease or not, but there’s no harm in finding a substitute for those deodorants.

  • Madeleine Kolb 06/25/2010, 9:38 am

    @LPC, Thanks for your comment. One of the reasons that Alzheimer’s disease is so scary is that no one knows for sure what causes it or how to prevent, delay, or cure it.

    We know that, besides age, risk factors include high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, both of which can be controlled by diet, exercise, medication, or some combination. I have both of those conditions and control them very well–so well that I don’t need medication for diabetes.

    I throw in a fair amount of mental exertion, socializing, a wonderful relationship with my BF, travel, and a bit of hope for good measure.

  • Angela Artemis 06/24/2010, 11:02 pm

    Alzheimers is scary prospect. I’ve stopped using deodorants with aluminum chlorhidrate. I’d read some where that heavy metal toxicity can contribute to Alzheimers.
    .-= Angela Artemis´s last blog ..If You’ve Never Failed – You Haven’t Tried Hard Enough to Succeed =-.

    • Di 08/28/2012, 2:47 pm

      Yes, I have stopped using deodorants other than one I get in my local Health Food Shop under the brand name of Jason. It is free of metal toxicity.
      Interesting what some say about aluminium saucepans.
      I believe in reading and writing a lot, doing puzzles and crosswords, taking an interest in politics and keeping busy on our allotment and with my grandchildren.
      I can recommend a book The Feel Good Factor by Patrick Holford. He has written many books on health and mental well being. Anyone interested in keeping Alzheimers or dementia at bay would do well to read his book. His advice on supplements is excellent.

  • LPC 06/24/2010, 9:50 pm

    Oh I know. What can we do? Hope for the best? Or just keep on moving. Which reminds me, yoga tomorrow:).
    .-= LPC´s last blog ..How, And Why, To Plant A Cottage Garden Anywhere On Earth =-.

  • jamestbickham 06/24/2010, 1:02 am

    Most people shudder at the thought of Alzheimer’s Disease.