By CNN Staff
(CNN) -- Playing games may boost your brain volume, according to new research presented this week at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Middle-aged people who were avid game-players (think crosswords, checkers, cards) tended to have bigger brains than people who did not play games, according to a recent study that looked at brain scans.
"It's like looking at someone's muscle mass," said Dr. Laurel Coleman of the Maine Medical Center Geriatric Assessment Center. "It's bad when it's smaller, good when it's bigger."
Researchers looked specifically at certain parts of participants' brains. The volume among game-players was greater in areas that tend to be damaged by Alzheimer's disease, suggesting the potential for delaying -- maybe even avoiding -- the disease. People who kept their brains pumped scored higher on tests of their thinking ability.
More than 35 million people worldwide live with dementia today, according to a new report. By 2050, that number is expected to more than triple to 115 million. Scientists are frantically trying to find new ways to detect and prevent Alzheimer's disease.
Coleman suggests mixing it up: Try potentially stimulating activities like learning a new language or switching from reading nonfiction to fiction -- anything that poses a cognitive challenge.
Here are a few other things we've learned from this week's Alzheimer's conference:
Exercise can also help the mind
Exercise seems to slow the descent toward dementia as well.
Two sets of data from the Mayo Clinic Study of Aging suggest that exercise may positively influence how mild cognitive impairment (a precursor to dementia) and dementia develop.
In one group of patients with mild cognitive impairment, exercising seemed to protect against developing dementia. Data on a different group of healthy patients who exercised -- either lightly or vigorously -- showed they were less likely to be diagnosed with cognitive impairment.
"We would never say that these things totally prevent Alzheimer's, that they will cure you," said Coleman, a geriatrician. "But they're going to help your brain."
Smell test may detect Alzheimer's
In the future, a test of your sense of smell may help doctors predict your risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.
In two separate studies, scientists found that people who were unable to identify certain odors were more likely to experience cognitive impairment. The researchers believe that brain cells crucial to a person's sense of smell are killed in the early stages of dementia.
Researchers say this information could help doctors create a smell test to detect Alzheimer's earlier. Early detection means early intervention and treatment to slow the progression of the disease. Doctors today can only diagnose Alzheimer's disease once it has caused significant brain damage.
"In the face of the growing worldwide Alzheimer's disease epidemic, there is a pressing need for simple, less invasive diagnostic tests that will identify the risk of Alzheimer's much earlier in the disease process," Heather Snyder, director of medical and scientific operations for the Alzheimer's Association, said in a statement.
CNN's Jacque Wilson and Stephanie Smith contributed to this story.
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