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A Brain Scientist Who Studies Alzheimer's Explains How She Stays Mentally Fit

Oct 8, 2018
Originally published on October 10, 2018 1:50 pm

As a specialist in Alzheimer's prevention, Jessica Langbaum knows that exercising her mental muscles can help keep her brain sharp.

But Langbaum, who holds a doctorate in psychiatric epidemiology, has no formal mental fitness program. She doesn't do crossword puzzles or play computer brain games.

"Just sitting down and doing Sudoku isn't probably going to be the one key thing that's going to prevent you from developing Alzheimer's disease," she says.

Instead of using a formal brain training program, she simply goes to work.

"My job is my daily cognitive training," says Langbaum, the associate director of the Alzheimer's Prevention Initiative at the Banner Alzheimer's Institute in Phoenix.

And that's true of most working people. "While you're still in the work force you are getting that daily challenge of multitasking, of remembering things, of processing information," she says.

Langbaum offers that perspective as someone who has spent years studying the effects of brain training programs, and as someone who has seen Alzheimer's up close.

"My grandfather was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment when I was in graduate school getting my Ph.D.," she says. "That transitioned into full-blown Alzheimer's dementia."

So Langbaum began to ask herself a question: "How can I in my career help ensure that we aren't suffering from the disease when we reach that age?"

And she realized early on that puzzles and games weren't the answer because they tend to focus on one very narrow task. The result is like exercising just one muscle in your body, Langbaum says. That muscle will get stronger, but your overall fitness isn't going to change.

The brain training programs used in research studies are more promising and much more demanding. "They're hard," says Langbaum, who tried them herself while she was part of a groundbreaking study on the effects of brain training.

In the study of about 2,800 people age 65 and older, most spent more than five weeks doing exercises that tested memory, reasoning or speed. Two of the interventions, reasoning and processing speed, helped a bit even 10 years later, Langbaum says.

"They delay the onset of cognitive impairment," she says. "They keep your brain working at the same level longer, compared to people who did not receive those same cognitive training interventions."

But it remains unclear whether brain training can also prevent or delay Alzheimer's. And more recent research suggests that social interaction may be a better form of mental exercise than brain training.

"People who have a lot of social interactions, particularly in mid-life, have a lower risk of Alzheimer's dementia in later life," Langbaum says. "There's something about being around people that's helpful for our brains."

Langbaum's in good shape on the social front. Between her family, her two kids, her colleagues at work, and her friends, she says, the social areas of her brain get a vigorous daily workout.

So brain training isn't for Langbaum. But it may be useful for people who are out of the workforce and more isolated, she says.

And she has some advice for anyone looking for a way to keep their brain healthy.

"If you like crossword puzzles, do them," she says. "But try something new. And trying something new that brings you enjoyment is key. Don't do it if you don't like it."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NOEL KING, HOST:

All right, we know that giving your mental muscles a workout can help keep your brain sharp as you get older. The question is what does that workout look like? Is it crossword puzzles? Is it computer games? To find out, NPR's Jon Hamilton talked to a brain scientist about her own approach to mental fitness.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: Jessica Langbaum's interest in brain health is professional and personal.

JESSICA LANGBAUM: My grandfather was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment when I was in graduate school getting my Ph.D.

HAMILTON: He went on to develop Alzheimer's, and Langbaum began to ask herself a question.

LANGBAUM: How can I, in my career, help ensure that we aren't suffering from the disease when we reach that age?

HAMILTON: Today Langbaum is associate director of the Alzheimer's Prevention Initiative at the Banner Alzheimer's Institute in Phoenix, and she firmly believes that staying mentally active is good for your brain. But Langbaum says she's not focusing on any single activity.

LANGBAUM: Just sitting down and doing Sudoko isn't probably going to be the one key thing that's going to prevent you from developing Alzheimer's disease.

HAMILTON: Langbaum says playing a puzzle game or one of those commercial brain games is like exercising just one muscle in your body. That muscle will get stronger, but your overall fitness isn't going to change. Langbaum says the brain training programs used in research studies are more promising and more strenuous.

LANGBAUM: They're hard.

HAMILTON: A few years ago, Langbaum was part of a groundbreaking study on brain training. About 2,800 people, age 65 and older, spent more than five weeks doing exercises that tested memory, reasoning and speed. Langbaum says they helped a bit.

LANGBAUM: They delay the onset of cognitive impairment. They keep your brain working at the same level, longer, compared to people who did not receive those same cognitive training interventions.

HAMILTON: Langbaum says it's unclear whether brain training can also prevent Alzheimer's. So I ask her whether she uses a cognitive training program.

LANGBAUM: I don't. Actually, I think my job is my daily cognitive training.

HAMILTON: She's not being flippant. Like a lot of people, Langbaum has a job that requires intense thinking, problem-solving and constant learning. She also has kids, a family and friends, which means the social areas of her brain get a daily workout. Langbaum says mental exercises may be most useful for people who are out of the workforce and more isolated, and she has some advice for anyone looking for a way to keep their brain healthy.

LANGBAUM: If you like crossword puzzles, do them, but try something new. And trying something new that brings you enjoyment is key. Don't do it if you don't like it.

HAMILTON: Jon Hamilton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.