Doing crossword puzzles and other mentally stimulating pursuits may hide the progress of Alzheimer’s disease rather than prevent it, meaning a crucial treatment window is missed, according to new research.
Scientists had previously shown the onset of dementia could be delayed by listening to the radio, doing puzzles, or other activities that keep the mind active.
But US researchers have shown the brain suffers progressive damage behind the scenes and there are often no symptoms to identify when a problem is present. This means when the Alzheimer’s symptoms do eventually appear the disease is often more advanced than expected.
As a result, doing puzzles, crosswords and other brain exercises can be linked with the disease progressing at a faster pace.
Study leader Dr Robert Wilson, from Rush University Medical Centre in Chicago, said: “Our results suggest that the benefit of delaying the initial signs of cognitive decline may come at the cost of more rapid dementia progression later on, but the question is: Why does this happen?”
Mentally stimulating activities may help the brain “rewire” itself to circumvent the effects of dementia, said Dr Wilson.
However, once the disease is diagnosed, damage to the brain is likely to be greater than it would be in someone who was not mentally stimulated.
Mental activity appeared to delay the start of Alzheimer’s and then speed up its progress, while reducing the overall amount of time a person suffers from the disease.
The 12-year-study, published online in the journal Neurology, involved evaluating the mental activity of 1,157 people aged 65 and over, none of whom had dementia at the start.