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Published on August 20, 2019

Learn a new skill and help stave off dementiaLearn a new skill and help stave off dementia

One of the most frightening prospects of growing older is the possibility of losing our memory. There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, but a study called The Synapse Project offers hope that preventive measures might help.

Researchers assigned 221 people between the ages of 60 and 90 to one of six groups. One group was tasked with learning digital photography and complicated photo editing programs for at least 15 hours a week for three months. The second group was assigned to learn quilting using a computerized sewing machine.

The third group did a combination of photography and quilting. Another group participated in director-led social activities like field trips and concerts. The fifth group was assigned to activities like crossword puzzles and listening to classical music, and the sixth group did nothing out of the ordinary.

At the end of three months, the people who did either digital photography or a combination of digital photography and quilting had the most beneficial results with cognition, especially memory function. The researchers concluded that learning new, unfamiliar skills that required engagement of working memory, long-term memory and other high-level cognitive processes actually helped preserve memory.

Intriguingly, a subset of the original 221 people was tested again one year later and three years later, and the results were still positive. The researchers were “cautiously optimistic” that age-related cognitive declines can be slowed if individuals are exposed to sustained, mentally challenging experiences.

“It was a neat study because it actually was one of the first times this has been demonstrated in a well-designed randomized control trial,” neurologist Karen Lynch, MD said about the first study. “It shows positive results for the normal cognitive older person who wants to preserve and keep brain function as optimal as possible.”

Study Fell Short

Learning a new skill, especially in conjunction with social interaction is intuitively a good idea, Dr. Lynch explained. But where the study fell short in her view is that all of the subjects began with normal cognitive function. Most of her patients do not fall into that category and a review of other trials with those who have early Alzheimer’s or vascular disease did not show great clinical evidence that any similar cognitive interventions would slow down the progression of dementia.

“It’s still very complex as to what can be done to prevent Alzheimer’s,” she said. “At this point , as there still remains so much unknown, there probably is not a huge amount as regards cognitive activities that can slow down or prevent progression. But I think ultimately, as an older adult, if you can keep active mentally and physically, you are going a long way to preserve cognition, and also your overall health.”

One of the complications working with patients with dementia is that they often aren’t aware of their problems with memory, Dr. Lynch said. Since their willingness to accept that they have memory problems is skewed, it can be hard to convince them to try learning new skills like digital photography. That combined with progressive cognitive decline would also make it difficult to learn a complicated new skill.

“It might even create anxiety or depression if you were to put a patient with cognitive impairment in an activity that requires higher skills – this may lead to frustration as they may not be able to follow through from one learning session to the next with what was previously taught,” Dr. Lynch said.

For those who already have signs of early dementia, it would probably be more helpful for them to brush up on an old skill like playing an instrument, re-engaging in a language previously known, she said. Sometimes that can be effective because it re-engages areas of the brain that may not be affected by a dementia process early on. I have often seen that these areas may be preserved. Physical activity and socializing on a regular basis are also helpful.

“If patients, for example, sit in their house all day and do not interact and engage in mindless learning from a TV, they do seem to clinically decline much quicker than somebody else who maybe has a spouse or partner who will bring them out and keep their social norms as full and active as possible,” she said.

As frustrating as Alzheimer’s is, Dr. Lynch sees hope for the future. She is currently wrapping up her part in a large nation-wide study called Imaging Dementia – Evidence for Amyloid Scanning (IDEAS). The study encompassed imaging the brains of 25,000 people who showed mild signs of dementia with no clear cause. PET scans were used to reveal clumps of amyloid, a malformed protein found in the brain of people with Alzheimer’s disease.

“It’s been excellent,” she said about her study. “The good thing is, given the early diagnosis in these cases, I can put them on medications a little bit earlier that can slow the progression down. Ultimately Alzheimer’s is progressive and decline is inevitable at present, but the slowing down the speed of progression is where a lot of the hot areas of research is, both with pharmaceutical agents and with cognitive activities that might help.”

In the meantime, even if there isn’t hard data for those who are already facing early cognitive decline, intuitively it just makes sense to keep active and continue learning. Everyone else might want to consider mastering Photoshop.