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Study suggests fun may deter Alzheimer's

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Seniors who dance the night away, play bridge or practice a musical instrument may be doing more than just having fun: A new study suggests that these active seniors might be warding off the risk of developing dementia, including Alzheimer's.

The study, released today in The New England Journal of Medicine, adds to the scientific evidence suggesting that mentally challenging activities might offer protection against Alzheimer's, a progressive brain disease that afflicts 4 million Americans.

Joe Verghese and his colleagues at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx studied 469 people age 75 and older who did not have any sign of forgetfulness at the study's start. The researchers asked the recruits how often they participated in leisure activities such as chess or crossword puzzles.

The scientists also kept track of the people who developed mild forgetfulness or full dementia during the study.

The team discovered that the most active people overall had a 63% lower risk of developing dementia compared with people who said they hardly ever played cards, danced or did other such activities.

People who played the hardest gained the most: For example, seniors who did crossword puzzles four days a week had a 47% lower risk of dementia than those who did the puzzles once a week.

Dancing also offered a hedge against dementia, although in general, physical activity did not. For example, the researchers found no protection associated with playing golf or tennis. But just a few seniors in the study played golf or tennis, so that finding might not hold true, Verghese cautions.

Any mentally challenging activity, such as learning a new dance step, might spur the brain to establish new connections or perhaps to grow new brain cells, says Gary Small at the University of California-Los Angeles. The extra brainpower might compensate for any loss of brain cells because of a progressive disease such as Alzheimer's.

The ''use it or lose it'' theory of successful aging has yet to be proven scientifically, says Bill Thies of the Alzheimer's Association in Chicago. Still this is one time the experts aren't waiting for proof: Thies, Small and Verghese all recommend building fun, mentally challenging activities into daily life.

Having fun won't hurt and it might ultimately offer a hedge against Alzheimer's, Small says:

''Keep your brain active and you may protect yourself against future memory loss.''

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