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Use It Or Lose It—How Brain Exercise Fights Alzheimer's

One day your doctor may prescribe lifelong learning.

Use It Or Lose It--How Brain Exercise Fights Alzheimer's

[Photo: Pitju/iStock]

If you want to keep your memories, you’d better make sure to exercise your brain.

A new study from Iowa State University suggests that the more you use your brain, the better it is at remembering things. By giving it regular workouts, you’ll keep it healthy and better able to fight off Alzheimer’s. In this way, it’s like exercising your body as it gets older in order to stop everything going downhill quite so fast.

Researchers have identified a protein that can be used to track the progress of Alzheimer’s. Using data from the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative, they identified two proteins that predict atrophy in the medial temporal lobe, the part of the brain that’s first to show memory loss in Alzheimer’s sufferers. But one of these proteins, Neuronal Pentraxin 2 (NPTX2), also proved to be a great predictor of actual memory decline, making it a fantastic way to track the progress of Alzheimer’s.

That’s useful for doctors working with Alzheimer’s sufferers, or observing patients who may develop it, but NPTX2 might actually guard against memory loss and the disease itself too. "NPTX2 seems to exert a protective effect," lead author Ashley Swanson told the Iowa State Newsroom. "The more you have, the less brain atrophy and better memory you have over time."

Study participants who had spent more time in educational environments had higher levels of NPTX2, suggesting that using your brain helps to protect it against decline. "It makes sense that the more time spent intensely focused on learning, the more your brain is trained to process information, and that doesn’t go away," said Swanson’s co-author Auriel Willette. "That intense kind of learning seems to make your brain stronger."

That said, the authors point out in their paper that "no causal inferences can be made" until longer-term studies have been done. But if nothing else, you’re going to have more fun using your brain for intensive learning than you are from flopping onto the couch and watching another rerun of Scandal.

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