By SUSAN CLLAHAN, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
Alzheimer's disease hasn't always been a common feature of growing old. Certainly, people in past generations developed forgetfulness and even dementia. But Alzheimer's, the disease which so ravages the memory that one can forget the face of one's own children or spouse, that was a rare cruelty. Now, we are the generations that are acutely aware of Alzheimer's.
We don't know why there seem to be more cases of Alzheimer's. Some believe that Alzheimer's is not occurring more but it is simply being reported more.
Others, including many scientists, believe that we are seeing more cases of Alzheimer's simply because we are living longer.
Whatever the truth, the reality is dire. Scientists from the Mayo Clinic predicted in a 2011 study led by Dr. Walter Rocca that by 2050, the number of people with Alzheimer's disease will quadruple.
One promising area of research has focused on preventing Alzheimer's. Scientists looking at large amounts of data noticed something intriguing. People in certain professions have much lower rates of Alzheimer's disease. Which types of work have lower rates of Alzheimer's?
Manual Laborers Have Higher Rates of Alzheimer's
People who do manual work suffer from higher rates of Alzheimer's diseases, according to a 2003 study from the Karolinska Institutat in Stockholm, Sweden.
The study looked at 913 people over the age of 75, none of whom had dementia. They were followed twice a year for 6 years. The participants were placed in categories correlating to their principal occupation.
During the 6 years, 260 people developed dementia, 197 with Alzheimer's disease. The researchers discovered that those whose principal life occupation was manual labor had a 60% higher rate of Alzheimer's disease and a 40% higher rate of dementia overall.
This is a startling and important difference. The scientists believe, in fact, that the 20th century advent of manual goods production work might explain the sharp rise in Alzheimer's disease.
What is it about manual labor that raises your risk for Alzheimer's disease? Or, put a different way, what is it about non-manual labor that protects the brain from Alzheimer's?
Mental Stimulation Protects the Brain from Alzheimer's
Other studies have discovered that mental stimulation protects our brains from Alzheimer's. Doing crossword puzzles or any other game that makes you "figure things out" appears to help.
But what is really remarkable is that one study has found having a job that is mentally stimulating during middle-age, offers the best protection against Alzheimer's disease. This was the finding of a 2009 study, again from the Karolina Institutat in Sweden.
In particular, the type of work that is most protective against Alzheimer's involves analyzing, coordinating and synthesizing large amounts of data.
There is something protective in the act of keeping track of and making sense of many disparate data.
Your brain needs to do this type of task. In fact, the researchers found that doing this type of task protects the brain even among people with lower levels of education.
Teachers who have to reach conclusions after analyzing results from dozens or hundreds of students, lawyers who have to craft and argument drawing from many different case precedents, doctors who have to make decisions drawing from experiences with hundreds of patients and of course, sociologists, psychologists, writers who draw on many different points of research, golfers who must analyze wind conditions, putting green speeds and golf club selection --- all these are types of activities that protect your brain from Alzheimer's.
To analyze, to reason, to make sense of, to see patterns from seeming chaos --- these are like calisthenics for your brain.
Even if you no longer work, you can analyze large sets of data by simply reading the newspapers (or sites) and working toward a well-reasoned position on the issues of the day. You have to resist easy conclusions, and instead take the long way home to arrive at a judgement that is best based on actual facts, not emotion.