Research Studies Reveal Clues to Keeping the Brain Healthy

Three studies have been presented at the Annual Meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, shedding more light on the factors that might influence brain health in ageing.

The first study was led by scientists from the University of California in Los Angeles, who studied data from a group of 876 over-65s. Participants filled out a questionnaire on their leisure-time activities, including sports, gardening, cycling and dancing. They were also given memory and thinking tests and had an MRI scan to look for changes in the volume of grey matter – the part of the brain that holds the bodies of nerve cells. The scientists report that physical activity is associated with higher grey matter volume on brain scans, indicating better brain health.

Rebecca Wood, Chief Executive of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:
“These results suggest that physical activity may help preserve grey matter, adding to existing evidence that what’s good for your heart is also good for your head. Although it’s not clear from this study whether an active lifestyle was also linked to better thinking skills, we do know that exercise can help lower the risk of dementia.

A second study, presented by Chicago scientists, used brain scans to look at the movement of water molecules through the brain. They used this technique as an indicator of the structural integrity of the brain, something that breaks down during Alzheimer’s. A group of 152 elderly volunteers were assessed using the brain scan, and asked to rate how often they engaged in mentally stimulating activities, like puzzles, playing games and reading the newspaper. The team found that those participants who reported taking part in more mentally engaging activities had better signs of brain integrity on the brain scan.

Rebecca Wood, said:
“This research suggests that keeping mentally active later in life could help maintain the brain’s integrity, but it is not clear from the research what this may mean for someone’s health in the long run. It would be interesting to see whether these structural changes were also linked to a risk of cognitive decline and dementia in this group of volunteers.

“The idea that keeping the brain active in old age could help stave off cognitive decline is not a new one, but scientists are still piecing together exactly why this may be. With 820,000 people in the UK living with dementia and this number rising, research into healthy brain ageing is becoming increasingly important.”

The third study presented at the conference compared the rate and pattern of brain shrinkage in a group of 109 volunteers. The participants had brain scans when they were first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and these were compared to scans taken a year before and after the diagnosis. The team mapped the patterns of brain cell loss in each volunteer, building up a picture of how the brain changed with the progression of the disease. They found that the female participants initially showed a greater rate of brain shrinkage, with men matching that at a later stage with a more aggressive period of decline.

Dr Laura Phipps of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:
“It is interesting to see differences between men and women in the rate of brain shrinkage during Alzheimer’s, but the potential reasons for this variation aren’t yet clear. The findings highlight the need to delve a little further into gender differences in Alzheimer’s, as it could have implications for the design of new treatments or research studies.

“We know that diseases like Alzheimer’s are incredibly complex, and understanding gender differences in the disease could help point to potential risk factors. With more and more people being affected by the disease, funding for research into Alzheimer’s and other dementias has never been more important.”

This material has been published with the kind permission of Alzheimer Research UK.

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