An intriguing recent report showed that the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease was reduced by more than 50 percent in those proficient in a second language. While this was good news for many, it was bad for me. In high school in South Africa, Afrikaans as a second language was required. This was the only subject in which I could never ever make an A, and occasionally, and much to parents distress, I'd earn a D. Now I regret that I did not try harder, because perhaps it would be helping my intellectual capabilities as I grow older.
The report does provide additional information, which states that lifelong intellectual challenge is an excellent way to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease. Those with higher degrees, mentally challenging occupations or hobbies are less likely to have memory loss.
A great deal of information has come from the study of 678 nuns conducted by Dr. David Snowden of the University of Kentucky. The goal of the study was to determine how different factors, such as education and mental activity, affect memory as well as the incidence of Alzheimer's. He found that nuns with the most education were the ones with the lowest risk of the disease, and that those who stayed mentally active by doing research or learning new languages were more likely to stay healthy and retain a robust memory. Intriguingly, the nun study showed that women who from an early age were able to write complex sentences with excellent prose were less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease than those who wrote in simple sentences. Nuns who read from an early age and were read to on a regular basis during childhood were more likely to stay mentally active into their 80s and beyond.
What is unique about the nun study is that regardless of the nuns' backgrounds and education levels, they all had very similar environments, ate the same foods, had identical access to health care, and maintained the same lifestyle. These facts made it possible for the researchers to exclude confounding variables, such as social circumstance, economics, marital status and many other factors that could explain why some women maintained better memories than others.
The message to me seems very clear: Have an active and challenged mind, and being a lifelong learner protects the brain from memory loss. In this regard, "use it or lose it" may indeed be true.
This is advice I now routinely give my older patients, those with Alzheimer's disease and their children who, because of a strong family history of the disease, appear to be at increased risk. Read a lot and encourage your children and grandchildren to read. Do crossword puzzles, take classes at a university, and stay active and involved in learning, irrespective of your age or whether you are still working or are retired. The more you challenge your brain, the healthier your brain will be because you will constantly be forming additional neural connections. Even if you do develop the disease at a later stage, you may well have a larger pool of brain cells to help you stay mentally sharp.
Obviously, there is no guarantee that being a lifelong learner will totally prevent Alzheimer's. We all know of very educated and bright adults who develop the disease. However, the information is compelling that more mental activities have kept them healthier until a later age than they otherwise might have been.
Because the benefits of staying mentally active and staying occupied and involved appears to protect the mind, many have asked if retirement may accelerate memory loss. There is no evidence that retirement is bad for your physical or mental health. However, retirement without a plan and without a purpose is associated with a greater risk of illness, shorter life expectancy and either physical disability or memory loss. Those who continue to stay active both physically and intellectually tend to be healthier and mentally more agile than those who do nothing more than watch the grass grow.
Remember a long and independent life is largely up to the way you embrace life and live. Happiness and health are the keys to an active and intact mind until a ripe old age.
Dr. David Lipschitz is the author of the book "Breaking the Rules of Aging." To find out more about Dr. David Lipschitz and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. More information is available at: DrDavidHealth.com.