November 27, 2005, Updated September 13, 2012

Dr. Rivka Inzelberg: What we found out is that leisure activity can influence the risk of Alzheimer’s.Anything that keeps your mind and body active – reading, writing, gardening, or even an introspective pursuit like prayer – can help to prevent the development of Alzheimer’s Disease, a collaborative study between Israeli and American researchers has found.

At the same time, the researchers discovered that passive activities like watching TV, can actually encourage the development of the disease.

The comprehensive research project was carried out by the Technion Israel’s Institute of Science & Technology, in cooperation with researchers from Boston University and Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and with the support of the US National Institute of Health (NIH).

Alzheimer’s is a devastating neurodegenerative disorder that results in loss of memory and poor judgment and generally affects those over the age of 60, though it can also affect younger people. It affects approximately four million Americans, with the number expected to rise dramatically with an increasing elderly population.

According to Dr. Rivka Inzelberg, a senior lecturer at the Technion’s Rappaport Faculty of Medicine and the Hillel Yaffe Medical Center in Hadera, and the head of the research team in Israel, the likelihood of developing the disease is influenced by hereditary factors, as well as other factors such as smoking and passive smoke inhalation, high fat consumption and very little physical activity which contribute to the disease’s development and severity.

“Our objective was to locate risk factors that affect the probabilities of contracting Alzheimer’s disease, including genetics and environmental factors,” Inzelberg told ISRAEL21c.

“The connection between leisure time activities and damage to brain capabilities has already been explored in a number of research projects. It is known that active intellectual activities can delay the development of Alzheimer’s.”

The Technion study focused on residents of the Wadi Ara region of Israel, with 600 persons over the age of 65 being part of the study group.

Inzelberg said that the Wadi Ara region was selected because the Case Western research – headed by Prof. Robert Friedland, director of the university’s Memory and Aging Center – has been conducted there since 1995.

According to Friedland, all of the known Alzheimer’s disease genes are dominant (APP, presenilin 2 and 1) or co-dominant (apolipoprotein E).

“There are no known genes for Alzheimer’s disease that are recessive. Studies in inbred communities in Canada have suggested that inbreeding is a risk factor for the disease. For several years we have been working with in Arab community in northern Israel in Wadi Ara. We have found a high prevalence of the disease in this community and a very low prevalence of the apolipoprotein E e4 allele. With our collaborators, Dr. Rivka Inzelberg and Lindsay Farrer, PhD, of Boston University, we are investigating the genetic and environmental factors for the disease in Wadi Ara,” Friedland wrote in a university journal.

The researchers mapped the chromosomes that increase the chances of Alzheimer’s and carried out a gene survey of specific families in Wadi Ara affected by the disease. In these individuals, they discovered (in 18 chromosomal areas) signs definitely connected to Alzheimer’s disease. These findings reinforce the hypothesis that the reason for the high frequency of the disease in the region is genetic.

The Technion researchers believe that the high rate of marriage between close relatives in these families is one of the main factors in preserving and increasing the genetic characteristics that lead to development of the disease.

Inzelberg’s team also spent time in the Wadi Ara villages interviewing the residents and having them fill out questionnaires focusing on their environment, the food they eat, and other daily habits.

“What we found out is that leisure activity can influence the risk of Alzheimer’s – specifically people who are involved in activities like reading and writing, praying and gardening were at less of a risk,” said Inzelberg.

She explained that her American colleagues used a similar questionnaire about life habits on American subject between the ages of 40 and 60, and discovered that watching television and other passive activity is likely to increase the risk of contracting Alzheimer’s.

Friedland’s team looked at three kinds of activity – passive, intellectual and physical – covering all kinds of ways people spend their time outside work, from visiting friends to playing an instrument and sports.

He told BBC News Online: “The study showed that the Alzheimer’s patients were consistently less active in younger life in all of these activities, except for TV.”

“The brain is an organ like any other organ which ages in regard to how its used. So learning is important for the brain – that’s the purpose, like the heart pumps and the muscles constrict.

“The brain has been honed by evolutionary forces to be active, and learning is an important part of life. When you watch TV, you can be in a semi-conscious state where you really are not doing any learning,” Friedland said.

Inzelberg, who was born in Turkey and moved to Israel in 1982, studied neurology at Tel Aviv University and has been treating patients at Hillel Yaffe and teaching at the Technion for almost 10 years.

“We began the joint project with Case Western and BU two years ago, but as a result of a big grant by the National Institute of health, it’s been continued for another five years,” she said.

Her research recently was presented at a special international conference held in Istanbul with the participation of Inzelberg and other neurologists from Israel, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, the Arab Emirates, Lebanon, India and Qatar.

Inzelberg’s attendance at the neurology conference in Istanbul was a pleasant expression of collegial support overcoming state allegiances, she said. This was in line with the conference’s discussions, which also dealt in part with possibilities for medical cooperation and the ability of medicine and science to cross-political borders.

“All of the participants from the various Middle East countries presented research and the problems facing their countries. The general atmosphere was very nice. The focus was more on how we could build common data bases which would help us all with common knowledge and therapy, and the results were very promising,” Inzelberg said.

One unexpected outcome of her participation in the conference were meetings and interactions with counterparts from Iraq, Iran and Syria. She confirmed reports that an Iranian researcher invited her to lecture on the research in Teheran, and said that she would pursue the offer.

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