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Brain Falters Near End of Life, but Games, Puzzles Might Slow Decline
Date:4/4/2012

By Randy Dotinga
HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, April 4 (HealthDay News) -- New research offers insights into the mysterious phenomenon of rapid cognitive decline in the two or three years before death, and confirms that intellectually challenging activities can help keep your mind sharp.

"Part of what your brain is like in old age has to do with what you're asking it to do on a regular basis," said Robert Wilson, professor of neurological sciences and behavioral sciences at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and lead author of two new studies. "Engaging in mentally stimulating activities is one course to improving the health of your brain."

One of the studies focused on the rapid decline in cognitive function in the last few years of life. Not everyone suffers from this, but it's a common phenomenon, Wilson said.

Scientists aren't quite sure why this happens. Is the decline caused by aging? The dying process? Or perhaps by Alzheimer's disease?

In the study, the researchers analyzed the lives of 174 members of religious orders, including priests and nuns, who began taking part in a medical research project in 1997. At an average of approximately two-and-a-half years before death, the participants' assorted memory and thinking abilities declined at rates eight to 17 times faster than before this end-of-life period.

The study suggests that while Alzheimer's disease may nudge the mental decline early on, other causes seem to be at play when the decline speeds up in the years just before death, Wilson said. "We think the underlying factors may shift as we move from mild changes to rapid changes," he said.

Because the changes before death affect several areas of the brain's functioning, beyond memory, this suggests that more than a single disease is responsible, said Hiroko Dodge, an associate professor of neurology at Oregon Health and Science University and co-author of a commentary accomp
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