Can people with more active intellectual and social lives delay some of the symptoms of the brain-wasting disease known as Alzheimer's? Perhaps, according to Washington University Alzheimer's researcher Catherine Roe.

In looking at brains after death, many researchers have noticed that those taken from Alzheimer's victims are riddled with amyloid plaques - a brain protein associated with cell damage. In fact, that's one of the ways Alzheimer's disease is diagnosed. But many people who did not have symptoms when they died still had plaques in their brains.

New imaging techniques can reveal amyloid plaques in the brain of a living person. Roe did brain scans of a group of older adults with and without Alzheimer's symptoms. She found plaques in the brains of some of them. She also gave her subjects cognitive tests.

"The people who did not have plaques in their brain did really well, and, basically, they were showing very few - if any - dementia symptoms at all," she reports. "But for people who did have plaques in their brain, those people as a group were showing dementia symptoms, and the degree to which they showed dementia symptoms depended on how much education they had."

In other words, she explains, people who had more years of education showed fewer dementia symptoms. Although most people with high levels of amyloid plaques did poorly on cognitive tests, those who had done post-graduate work continued to score well in the testing. Their cognitive abilities had not declined as much, and they had not become demented.

"So education is one way of measuring that," Roe points out, "but other ways of measuring that are occupation, how intellectually active someone is: if they read the newspaper, if they read magazines, if they do crossword puzzles. How socially engaged they are: Do they get out? Do they see friends and relatives? Or do they sit around watching TV?"

Roe wants to look at some of those things in future studies, the way she looked at education levels in this study. She says it would be nice to find out whether people could take up intellectual pursuits as a way to fight against Alzheimer's.

"We don't know exactly what you can do when you're an older adult, if that will help or not. But we do know that that's just a healthy way to live - to be intellectually active and take care of yourself. So it can't hurt, and I think in the next few years, you'll start to see results from studies that do address that."

Roe says these results support the idea that when it comes to brain function, there may be some truth to the old cliché "use it or lose it." She reported her findings in Archives of Neurology.