prevention mental

Music training protects against aging-related hearing loss

February, 2012

More evidence that music training protects older adults from age-related impairment in understanding speech, adding to the potential benefits of music training in preventing dementia.

I’ve spoken before about the association between hearing loss in old age and dementia risk. Although we don’t currently understand that association, it may be that preventing hearing loss also helps prevent cognitive decline and dementia. I have previously reported on how music training in childhood can help older adults’ ability to hear speech in a noisy environment. A new study adds to this evidence.

The study looked at a specific aspect of understanding speech: auditory brainstem timing. Aging disrupts this timing, degrading the ability to precisely encode sound.

In this study, automatic brain responses to speech sounds were measured in 87 younger and older normal-hearing adults as they watched a captioned video. It was found that older adults who had begun musical training before age 9 and engaged consistently in musical activities through their lives (“musicians”) not only significantly outperformed older adults who had no more than three years of musical training (“non-musicians”), but encoded the sounds as quickly and accurately as the younger non-musicians.

The researchers qualify this finding by saying that it shows only that musical experience selectively affects the timing of sound elements that are important in distinguishing one consonant from another, not necessarily all sound elements. However, it seems probable that it extends more widely, and in any case the ability to understand speech is crucial to social interaction, which may well underlie at least part of the association between hearing loss and dementia.

The burning question for many will be whether the benefits of music training can be accrued later in life. We will have to wait for more research to answer that, but, as music training and enjoyment fit the definition of ‘mentally stimulating activities’, this certainly adds another reason to pursue such a course.

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'Exergames' may provide greater cognitive benefit for older adults

February, 2012

An intriguing pilot study finds that regular exercise on a stationary bike enhanced with a computer game-type environment improves executive function in older adults more than ordinary exercise on a stationary bike.

We know that physical exercise greatly helps you prevent cognitive decline with aging. We know that mental stimulation also helps you prevent age-related cognitive decline. So it was only a matter of time before someone came up with a way of combining the two. A new study found that older adults improved executive function more by participating in virtual reality-enhanced exercise ("exergames") that combine physical exercise with computer-simulated environments and interactive videogame features, compared to the same exercise without the enhancements.

The Cybercycle Study involved 79 older adults (aged 58-99) from independent living facilities with indoor access to a stationary exercise bike. Of the 79, 63 participants completed the three-month study, meaning that they achieved at least 25 rides during the three months.

Unfortunately, randomization was not as good as it should have been — although the researchers planned to randomize on an individual basis, various technical problems led them to randomize on a site basis (there were eight sites), with the result that the cybercycle group and the control bike group were significantly different in age and education. Although the researchers took this into account in the analysis, that is not the same as having groups that match in these all-important variables. However, at least the variables went in opposite directions: while the cybercycle group was significantly younger (average 75.7 vs 81.6 years), it was significantly less educated (average 12.6 vs 14.8 years).

Perhaps also partly off-setting the age advantage, the cybercycle group was in poorer shape than the control group (higher BMI, glucose levels, lower physical activity level, etc), although these differences weren’t statistically significant. IQ was also lower for the cybercycle group, if not significantly so (but note the high averages for both groups: 117.6 vs 120.6). One of the three tests of executive function, Color Trails, also showed a marked group difference, but the large variability in scores meant that this difference was not statistically significant.

Although participants were screened for disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and functional disability, many of both groups were assessed as having MCI — 16 of the 38 in the cybercycle group and 14 of the 41 in the control bike group.

Participants were given cognitive tests at enrolment, one month later (before the intervention began), and after the intervention ended. The stationary bikes were identical for both groups, except the experimental bike was equipped with a virtual reality display. Cybercycle participants experienced 3D tours and raced against a "ghost rider," an avatar based on their last best ride.

The hypothesis was that cybercycling would particularly benefit executive function, and this was borne out. Executive function (measured by the Color Trails, Stroop test, and Digits Backward) improved significantly more in the cybercycle condition, and indeed was the only cognitive task to do so (other cognitive tests included verbal fluency, verbal memory, visuospatial skill, motor function). Indeed, the control group, despite getting the same amount of exercise, got worse at the Digits Backward test, and failed to show any improvement on the Stroop test.

Moreover, significantly fewer cybercyclists progressed to MCI compared to the control group (three vs nine).

There were no differences in exercise quantity or quality between the two groups — which does argue against the idea that cyber-enhanced physical activity would be more motivating. However, the cybercycling group did tend to comment on their enjoyment of the exercise. While the enjoyment may not have translated into increased activity in this situation, it may well do so in a longer, less directed intervention — i.e. real life.

It should also be remembered that the intervention was relatively short, and that other cognitive tasks might take longer to show improvement than the more sensitive executive function. This is supported by the fact that levels of the brain growth factor BDNF, assessed in 30 participants, showed a significantly greater increase of BDNF in cybercyclists.

I should also emphasize that the level of physical exercise really wasn't that great, but nevertheless the size of the cybercycle's effect on executive function was greater than usually produced by aerobic exercise (a medium effect rather than a small one).

The idea that activities that combine physical and mental exercise are of greater cognitive benefit than the sum of benefits from each type of exercise on its own is not inconsistent with previous research, and in keeping with evidence from animal studies that physical exercise and mental stimulation help the brain via different mechanisms. Moreover, I have an idea that enjoyment (in itself, not as a proxy for motivation) may be a factor in the cognitive benefits derived from activities, whether physical or mental. Mere speculation, derived from two quite separate areas of research: the idea of “flow” / “being in the zone”, and the idea that humor has physiological benefits.

Of course, as discussed, this study has a number of methodological issues that limit its findings, but hopefully it will be the beginning of an interesting line of research.  

Reference: 

[2724] Anderson-Hanley, C., Arciero P. J., Brickman A. M., Nimon J. P., Okuma N., Westen S. C., et al.
(2012).  Exergaming and Older Adult Cognition.
American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 42(2), 109 - 119.

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Physical evidence bilingualism delays onset of Alzheimer's symptoms

January, 2012
  • Brain scans reveal that active bilinguals can have nearly twice as much brain atrophy as monolinguals before cognitive performance suffers.

Growing evidence points to greater education and mentally stimulating occupations and activities providing a cognitive reserve that enables people with developing Alzheimer's to function normally for longer. Cognitive reserve means that your brain can take more damage before it has noticeable effects. A 2006 review found that some 30% of older adults found to have Alzheimer’s when autopsied had shown no signs of it when alive.

There are two relevant concepts behind the protection some brains have: cognitive reserve (which I have mentioned on a number of occasions), and brain reserve, which is more structural. ‘Brain reserve’ encapsulates the idea that certain characteristics, such as a greater brain size, help protect the brain from damage. Longitudinal studies have provided evidence, for example, that a larger head size in childhood helps reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

While cognitive reserve has been most often associated with education, it has also been associated with occupation, bilingualism, and music. A new study provides physical evidence for how effective bilingualism is.

The Toronto study involved 40 patients with a diagnosis of probable Alzheimer’s, of whom half were bilingual (fluent in a second language, and consistent users of both languages throughout their lives). Bilingual and monolingual patients were matched on a test of cognitive function (the Behavioral Neurology Assessment). The two groups were similar in education levels, gender, and performance on the MMSE and the clock drawing test. The groups did differ significantly in occupational status, with the monolinguals having higher job status than the bilinguals.

Notwithstanding this similarity in cognitive performance, brain scans revealed that the bilingual group had substantially greater atrophy in the medial temporal lobe and the temporal lobe. The two groups did not differ in measures of central and frontal atrophy, however — these regions are not associated with Alzheimer’s.

In other words, bilingualism seems to specifically help protect those areas implicated in Alzheimers, and the bilinguals could take much greater damage to the brain before it impacted their cognitive performance. It is suggested that the act of constantly switching between languages, or suppressing one language in favor of other, may help train the brain to be more flexible when the need comes to compensate for damaged areas.

The findings are consistent with previous observational studies suggesting that bilingualism delays the onset of Alzheimer's symptoms by up to five years.

Reference: 

[2712] Schweizer, T. A., Ware J., Fischer C. E., Craik F. I. M., & Bialystok E.
(2011).  Bilingualism as a contributor to cognitive reserve: Evidence from brain atrophy in Alzheimer’s disease.
Cortex.

Valenzuela MJ and Sachdev P. 2006. Brain reserve and dementia: A systematic review. Psychological Medicine, 36(4): 441e454.

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Higher levels of social activity decrease the risk of cognitive decline

May, 2011
  • More evidence indicating that a lack of engagement in social activities increases the rate of cognitive decline in older adults.

Adding to the growing evidence that social activity helps prevent age-related cognitive decline, a longitudinal study involving 1,138 older adults (mean age 80) has found that those who had the highest levels of social activity (top 10%) experienced only a quarter of the rate of cognitive decline experienced by the least socially active individuals (bottom 10%). The participants were followed for up to 12 years (mean of 5 years).

Social activity was measured using a questionnaire that asked participants whether, and how often, in the previous year they had engaged in activities that involve social interaction—for example, whether they went to restaurants, sporting events or the teletract (off-track betting) or played bingo; went on day trips or overnight trips; did volunteer work; visited relatives or friends; participated in groups such as the Knights of Columbus; or attended religious services.

Analysis adjusted for age, sex, education, race, social network size, depression, chronic conditions, disability, neuroticism, extraversion, cognitive activity, and physical activity.

There has been debate over whether the association between social activity and cognitive decline is because inactivity leads to impairment, or because impairment leads to inactivity. This study attempted to solve this riddle. Participants were evaluated yearly, and analysis indicates that the inactivity precedes decline, rather than the other way around. Of course, it’s still possible that there are factors common to both that affect social engagement before showing up in a cognitive test. But even in such a case, it seems likely that social inactivity increases the rate of cognitive decline.

Reference: 

[2228] James, B. D., Wilson R. S., Barnes L. L., & Bennett D. A.
(2011).  Late-Life Social Activity and Cognitive Decline in Old Age.
Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society. FirstView, 1 - 8.

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Bilingualism delays onset of Alzheimer's symptoms

January, 2011

A second study confirms the dramatic effect of being bilingual, with bilingual speakers being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s more than 4 years later than monoglots.

Clinical records of 211 patients diagnosed with probable Alzheimer's disease have revealed that those who have spoken two or more languages consistently over many years experienced a delay in the onset of their symptoms by as much as five years. It’s thought that lifelong bilingualism may contribute to cognitive reserve in the brain, enabling it to compensate for memory loss, confusion, and difficulties with problem-solving and planning.

Of the 211 patients of the Sam and Ida Ross Memory Clinic at Baycrest, 102 patients were classified as bilingual and 109 as monolingual. Bilingual patients had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's 4.3 years later than the monolingual patients on average, and had reported the onset of symptoms 5.1 years later. The groups were equivalent on measures of cognitive and occupational level, there was no apparent effect of immigration status, and there were no gender differences.

The findings confirm an earlier study from the same researchers, from the clinical records of 184 patients diagnosed with probable Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.

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[2039] Craik, F. I. M., Bialystok E., & Freedman M.
(2010).  Delaying the onset of Alzheimer disease.
Neurology. 75(19), 1726 - 1729.

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Mental activity may slow cognitive decline initially, but speed up dementia later

October, 2010

Another study has come out suggesting that the advantage of mental stimulation is to delay cognitive decline, but at the cost of faster decline later (it’s still a good bargain).

A long-running study involving 1,157 healthy older adults (65+) who were scored on a 5-point scale according to how often they participated in mental activities such as listening to the radio, watching television, reading, playing games and going to a museum, has found that this score is correlated to the rate of cognitive decline in later years.

Some 5 ½ years after this initial evaluation, 395 (34%) were found to have mild cognitive impairment and 148 (13%) to have Alzheimer’s. Participants were then tested at 3-yearly intervals for the next 6 years. The rate of cognitive decline in those without cognitive impairment was reduced by 52% for each point on the cognitive activity scale, but for those with Alzheimer's disease, the average rate of decline per year increased by 42% for each point on the cognitive activity scale. Rate of decline was unrelated to earlier cognitive activity in those with MCI (presumably they were at the balance point).

This is not terribly surprising when you think of it, if you assume that the benefit of mental stimulation is to improve your brain function so that it can better cope with the damage happening to it. But eventually it reaches the point where it can no longer compensate for that damage because it is so overwhelming.

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Larger head size may protect against Alzheimer's symptoms

August, 2010
  • Another study finding larger head size helps protect people with Alzheimer’s brain damage from cognitive impairment.

Confirming previous research, a study involving 270 Alzheimer’s patients has found that larger head size was associated with better performance on memory and thinking tests, even when there was an equivalent degree of brain damage. The findings are consistent with the theory of cognitive reserve. They also point to the importance of brain development early in life, since the brain reaches 93% of its final size at age six, and while partly determined by genes, brain growth is also influenced by nutrition, infections, and brain injuries.

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