Everyone wishes to stay physically and mentally fit into old age and not develop Alzheimer’s disease, a common cause of dementia in which brain cells degenerate and die, leading to a progressive decline in memory and mental function.

New research suggests that the disease can be at least delayed.

“Results of new research from Germany, the United States and Canada clearly show that while timely countermeasures cannot prevent Alzheimer’s disease, they can delay its onset by years,” according to Wolf D Oswald, a professor of psychology at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany.

For more than 20 years Mr. Oswald has directed a research project on ways to preserve one’s independence in old age. On the basis of his scientific studies, Mr. Oswald has concluded that the onset of Alzheimer’s can be delayed by five to ten years if one remains physically and mentally active. “The emphasis is on the word ‘and,’” he said.

Mr. Oswald recommends walking two kilometres a day and avoiding falling into a rut mentally. “This includes going back to doing mental arithmetic, memorising things, trying out new activities and doing volunteer work,” he said.

People for whom this is too difficult can use a simple anti-Alzheimer’s training programme, Mr. Oswald said.

For example, as quickly as possible mark all instances of two particular letters (e.g. “a” and “n“) in an article in the daily newspaper, preferably faster each day. Or, after reading the newspaper, write down as many details as you can remember.

Though these exercises may seem to be quite easy, Mr. Oswald said that new epidemiological studies in the U.S. supported their forestalling effect on Alzheimer’s disease.

Markus Preiter, head of the Memory Clinic at Asklepios Hospital in Hamburg as well as deputy director of its Mental Health Centre, also sees activity as the best recipe for mental fitness — provided the patient does not already suffer from Alzheimer’s.

“Unfortunately there are no convincing preventative strategies for the disease, neither with drugs nor with special training programmes,” he said.

The brain, Preiter remarked, cannot be trained like a muscle. Remaining socially engaged is more important for older people than concentrated memory training, he said.

“The most stimulating thing for people is other people. Our brain is a social organ, and contact with others stimulates us and keeps us mentally fit.” Preserving mental fitness is among the daily challenges for patients in nursing homes.

“Even the homes’ location plays a role,” noted Nadine Behrendt, director of the Waldstrasse Nursing Home in Hanover. “It’s important that seniors be able to actively take part in what’s happening around them. So they need convenient transport connections and shopping opportunities just as they do nearby parks.”

More In: Medicine | Health | Sci-Tech | Rx