Active minds keep atrophy at bay

April 14, 1995

A combination of good education and continuing mental activity may help delay the onset of dementia, according to psychiatric researchers.

A report from the Erasmus University in the Netherlands in this week's British Medical Journal says dementia is more likely to occur in people with low levels of education. In an accompanying editorial, Martin Orrell, senior lecturer in psychiatry of the elderly at University College London medical school and Barbara Sahakian of Cambridge University's psychiatry department, say that education may in some way protect against degeneration of the brain cells.

A second suggestion is that education might have improved the way brain cells work together, so that when some cells die, others could take over similar tasks, minimising the effect of degeneration.

"Adult education programmes and stimulating mental activity may help improve coping skills and strategies for solving problems, and in turn these may help offset the cognitive effects of normal ageing and delay the clinical symptoms associated with Alzheimer's disease."

The editorial says that further research is needed, but at present it seems prudent to recommend to elderly people that mental stimulation is worthwhile. "There may be some truth in the saying 'use it or lose it'."

*University College London has announced Pounds 26 million funding for a new teaching centre uniting its medical school with the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine, and a research institute which will initially concentrate on cardiovascular disease and pain research.

Derek Roberts, provost of UCL, said that Pounds 14.5 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and Pounds 11.5 from the Wellcome Trust would enable UCL to refurbish the original University College Hospital building.

Offering welcome support for the beleaguered Secretary of State for Health, Dr Roberts said the developments would not have been possible without Virginia Bottomley's initiative to carry out the original Tomlinson proposals to restructure London medicine "in a manner that protected and, indeed, strengthened academic excellence in medical research and teaching".

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