Which is better for keeping your mind fit: physical or mental activity?

Heidi Godman
Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

Physical and mental activities are both important for protecting your thinking skills and warding off dementia. But does one trump the other? A study published yesterday in JAMA Internal Medicine tried to tease out if one was better than the other for brain health. Researchers recruited 126 older adults who felt that their memory or thinking skills had recently gotten worse, and divided them into four groups. All were asked to do an hour of mental activity three times a week and an hour of physical activity three times a week. What differed were the intensities of these activities. After 12 weeks, scores on thinking tests improved across the board. The big surprise was that there weren’t any real differences in improvement between the groups. The researchers concluded that the amount of activity is more important for stimulating the brain than the type of activity, because all of the participants both exercised and engaged in mental activities each week.

7 common causes of forgetfulness

Daniel Pendick

Memory slips are aggravating, frustrating, and sometimes worrisome. When they happen more than they should, they can trigger fears of looming dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. But there are many mundane—and treatable—causes of forgetfulness. Here are seven common ones: lack of sleep, some medications, an underactive thyroid, drinking too much alcohol, stress, anxiety, and depression. If memory lapses are bugging you, it’s worth a conversation with your doctor to see if any reversible causes are at the root of the problem. Something like getting more sleep, switching a medication, or a stress reduction program could get your memory back on track.

Hearing loss may be linked to mental decline

Howard LeWine, M.D.
Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor, Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

Loss of hearing represents more than just difficulty hearing sounds. It can lead to social isolation and depression. A new study suggests that hearing loss may also be linked to loss of memory and thinking skills. In a study published online yesterday in JAMA Internal Medicine, Johns Hopkins researchers found that declines in thinking skills happened faster during a six-year period among people with hearing loss than among those without it. Among the nearly 2,000 volunteers, all over age 70, those with hearing loss we also likely to develop “cognitive impairment,” defined as a substantial reduction in the score on a key test called the Modified Mini-Mental State Examination. The researchers estimated that it would take a hearing-impaired older adult just under eight years, on average, to develop cognitive impairment compared with 11 years for those with normal hearing. This new study shows an association. It does not prove that hearing loss causes a decline in thinking skills. The work also raises a huge question: can treating hearing loss prevent or slow an age-related decline in brain function?

Mental strain helps maintain a healthy brain

Daniel Pendick

When it comes to keeping healthy and fit, living a mentally active life is as important as regular physical exercise. Just as your muscles grow stronger with use, mental exercise keeps your mental skills and memory in tone. Although any brain exercise is better than being a total mental couch potato, some kinds of “brain work” are more effective than others. The activities with the most impact are those that require you to work beyond what is easy and comfortable. Try these four basic brain-health strategies: Be a lifelong learner. Strain your brain with mentally challenging tasks. Get out of your comfort zone from time to time to challenge your mental skills. Be social. And don’t forget your body—physical activity that gets your pulse thumping helps the mind as well as the heart.

Late-life depression may signal memory loss or dementia ahead

Stephanie Watson

Depression can strike at any age. Children can develop it, as can octogenarians. No matter when it starts, depression can drain the joy and pleasure from life. The first appearance of depression later in life may also be a signal of memory loss or dementia down the road. According to a study in the Archives of General Psychiatry, dementia is more common among people who become depressed in middle age or later in life than among those who aren’t depressed. Depression is often overlooked in older adults, so it’s important to be on the lookout for warning signs, like feelings of hopelessness, loss of interest in activities, trouble sleeping, and more. It’s important to treat depression in individuals with the beginning of dementia, and older individuals who are depressed should be evaluated for dementia.

Brain disease deaths high in pro football players

Robert Shmerling, M.D.
Robert Shmerling, M.D., Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

How’s this for a mind-bender: Lou Gehrig may not have had Lou Gehrig’s disease. Instead, the disease that ended his life may have been chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This brain disease is caused by repeated concussions—Gehrig sustained at least four during his baseball career—or other head injuries. It can cause symptoms very similar to those of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), now commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease. More evidence of a connection between CTE and ALS comes from a new study of almost 3,500 retired professional football players, all of whom had played for at least five years in the National Football League. Among the 334 who died during the course of the study, the risk of death from Alzheimer’s disease or ALS was nearly four times higher than expected. Players who manned a “speed” position (such as quarterbacks or receivers) had a risk of dying from Alzheimer’s disease or ALS that was more than three times higher than those playing “non-speed” positions (such as linemen).

A sluggish, unsteady walk might signal memory problems

Stephanie Watson

Is there a spring in your step—or a wobble in your walk? The speed and stability of your stride could offer important clues about the state of your brain’s health. According to new research, an unsteady gait is one early warning sign that you might be headed for memory problems down the road. A group of studies reported last week at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Vancouver, Canada, revealed a strong link between walking ability and mental function. What’s behind this connection? Walking is a complex task that requires more than just moving the leg muscles. Walking requires scanning the environment for obstacles and safely navigating around them, all while talking and carrying out various other tasks. The studies found that walking rhythm was related to information processing speed; walking variations and speed were associated with executive function (the mental processes we use to plan and organize); and walking speed became significantly slower as mental decline grew more severe.

Can computer games keep your brain fit?

Christine Junge
Christine Junge, Former Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Computer games are being touted as a way to keep the body fit. Can they do the same for your brain? Most experts say “Not so fast.” As described in Improving Memory: Understanding age-related memory loss, a new Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School, people who play these games might get better at the tasks they practice while playing, but the games don’t seem to improve users’ overall brain skills, such as attention, memory, use of language, and ability to navigate. To stretch and exercise your brain, choose an activity you enjoy—reading, playing cards, or doing crossword puzzles are some good examples. If you’re feeling ambitious, try learning to speak a new language or play a musical instrument. Most of these activities come at a much lower cost than brain-training programs, and you’ll probably find them to be a lot more enjoyable, too.

National plan aims to bolster fight against Alzheimer’s

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

By the year 2050, experts estimate that 16 million Americans will be living with this Alzheimer’s disease. In an effort to head off the explosion, President Obama has signed into law the National Alzheimer’s Project Act. This ambitious project aims to attack Alzheimer’s disease by improving early diagnosis, finding effective prevention and treatment strategies, providing better support for family caregivers, and more. A newly released draft of the project, which a panel of experts is reviewing this week, sets a 2025 deadline for achieving these and other goals. One big drawback—the act doesn’t provide concrete details about how to fund the research and implementation efforts needed to meet the goals.

Is it Alzheimer’s, or just a memory slip?

Annmarie Dadoly, Former Editor, Harvard Health

Everyone has moments of forgetfulness—misplaced keys, a forgotten errand, the name of that movie you want to recommend but can’t get off the tip of your tongue. A certain amount of forgetfulness seems to be a normal byproduct of aging. But how do you know is forgetfulness signals something more serious, like Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia? According to “A Guide to Alzheimer’s Disease,” an updated Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School, by exploring several questions you may be able to get a clearer sense of normal versus worrisome forgetfulness: Is my loved one worried about the memory loss? Is he or she getting lost in familiar territory? Are word-finding problems common? Is your loved one losing the ability to socialize, or interest in it?