The brain is not a muscle, but in certain ways, it may be viewed as one. That is because an increasing body of evidence indicates that maintaining mental acuity as we age is analogous to strengthening and toning our muscles through exercise. This process of continually stimulating our brains might even lower our risk for developing Alzheimer's disease.

Support for this idea comes from a new study that has found that reading a book or solving a puzzle, activities that force us to use our brains, might help to reduce the levels of certain protein deposits that are linked to age-related dementia. The deposits in question, beta amyloid proteins, are hallmark signs of Alzheimer's disease and have become a new area of focus in Alzheimer's research.

Amyloid protein fibers can fold up into tangled plaques that accumulate in the brain. Part of this process is inevitable due to aging and heredity. In fact, as many as one third of the population is affected by age 60. It is believed that the deposits start forming long before the symptoms appear, suggesting that the earlier that preventative measures are undertaken the better.

In the study in question, researchers examined 65 healthy individuals with an average age of 76 years. They determined how frequently they engaged in mentally stimulating activities like reading, writing letters, and going to the library. The scientists were interested in not only in their current level of stimulation, but how much they were engaged when they were younger.

What they found was that a high level of cognitive activity over a lifetime was associated with a lower levels of beta-amyloid deposits, even when factors such as physical activity, level of education, and gender were taken into account. Interestingly, the researchers found that the most significant benefits were seen when a person was mentally engaged over their lifetime rather than just in old age, suggesting that the sooner these preventative activities are undertaken, the better.

Scientists had previously suggested that stimulating your brain has tangible benefits as we age, but the current data goes a step further and identifies a possible biological influence on disease progression. The findings, published in the Archives of Neurology, might lead to therapeutic interventions to treat and prevent Alzheimer's disease.

It is currently estimated that 5.4 million people in this country suffer from Alzheimer's disease, but that figure is expected to increase as a growing percentage of the population gets older. Though there is currently no cure, the government has turned its attention to the disease by drafting the first-ever National Alzheimer's Plan with the hopes of developing an effective treatment by 2025.

If you have questions or concerns about dementia, speak with your physician and visit the website for the National Library of Medicine.