Alzheimer’s disease is currently the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, and approximately one in three seniors die due to Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia. For years, researchers thought that patients couldn’t do anything to delay or prevent the onset of dementia, but new research is showing that everything from crosswords puzzles to picking up an instrument to hitting the books can help to delay this devastating mental illness.

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Alzheimer’s Effects on the Brain

Alzheimer’s disease causes cell death and tissue loss in the brain. As this happens, the brain shrinks and its ability to function reduces. Although scientists are still unsure of what exactly causes Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, they suspect that it is caused by tangles and plaques. Plaques are unhealthy clusters of protein while tangles are twisted strands of another type of protein.

When tangles and plaques appear in the cells, they prevent nutrients from moving through the cells, and eventually, this causes the cells to die. As a person’s cells first begin to die, they exhibit the early effects of dementia, and they have trouble with memory and planning skills. As the disease progresses to moderate levels, they start to struggle with speech and the ability to determine where their body is in relation to other objects. As the disease moves into its final stages, patients have trouble communicating at all, and in most cases, they do not even recognize family members. This transition can take place over two decades, but it is faster in some patients than others.

Continue Mental Stimulation

Currently, it is impossible to prevent dementia, but the Mayo Clinic has suggestions for people who want to delay its onset. At the top of the list is keeping your mind active. Mentally stimulating hobbies including puzzles, word games and memory training are a great place to start. You could find classes at CollegeOnline that peak your interest. According to the Mayo Clinic, people who spend more time in formal education experience less mental decline than their less formally educated peers. Researchers hypothesize that the nerve cell damage caused by Alzheimer’s is tempered by the strong nerve cell network that these life learners build.

Benefits of Being Bilingual

¿Hablas español? Parlez-vous français? A recent study from the American Academy of Neurology indicates that learning a second language can delay dementia for at least 4.5 years. Researchers studied 648 dementia patients in India. All of those studied had an average age of 66 years, but according to researchers, those who spoke two or more languages experienced the onset of dementia approximately 4.5 years later than their peers. Researchers also uncovered differences between subjects who were literate and those who were illiterate.

Beyond the Brain

The brain is not an organ that exists on its own. HelpGuide.org, a nonprofit mental health website, reminds people that a healthy brain is supported by six critical pillars: exercise, nutrition, mental stimulation, sleep, stress management and socializing. The stronger these six pillars are, the longer your brain will continue to function as normal. In addition to studying, you can delay dementia just by exercising regularly, getting ample sleep and having a supportive network of friends.

Sandra Kelley is a retired middle school principal from Florida.

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