Can a sudoku puzzle a day keep dementia at bay? And is 'leaky gut syndrome' real, or just a marketing ploy?


Q. If physical exercise keeps the body young and healthy, does mental exercise do the same for the brain? Does a sudoku a day keep dementia away?

A. Physical exercise undoubtedly prolongs life and reduces the risk of many diseases, including heart disease, cancer and osteoporosis. There is even some evidence that regular physical exercise reduces the risk of developing dementia. But it is less clear that mental exercises will do the same for the brain. According to the Alzheimer's Society, certain activities are linked to a reduced risk of dementia. These include seeing friends, going to church, playing cards, dancing, travelling, doing odd jobs, knitting, and doing crosswords. It has even been suggested that watching plenty of television will reduce your risk of dementia. But other studies have shown exactly the opposite - that watching too much TV increases the risk.

As for mental exercises, such as maths puzzles and games like Scrabble and sudoku, although there has been a lot of research to try to answer this question, the scientific jury is still out. Most experts believe that mental exercise keeps the brain fit, but they don't yet have the research to prove it.


Q. I am due to have an endoscopy to discover the cause of stomach pains. The pains seem like indigestion, but are intermittent. Food doesn't make the pain better or worse - in fact, it seems unrelated to eating. My greatest fear is the endoscopy - I can't bear the thought of a flexible telescope being shoved down my throat. Will I be put to sleep?

A. An endoscopy is an examination with a thin, flexible fibreoptic viewing device, to see inside the body. Upper gastrointestinal endoscopies see the oesophagus and stomach. Lower-end endoscopies - colonoscopies - see the large intestine. The small intestine is not easy to see with an endoscope, but luckily, the small intestine doesn't usually cause as much trouble as the stomach and large intestine.

If you are having an upper endoscopy, the nurse or doctor doing the investigation will probably spray the back of your throat with a horrid-tasting anaesthetic. You will then be given an injection of a sedative. This is not a general anaesthetic, but it makes you sufficiently drowsy that you are not likely to be aware of what is happening. The drug also has an amnesic effect, so even if you are partially awake, you are unlikely to remember anything. Afterwards you will have a sore throat, but most people are back to normal within a day.

For colonoscopies the procedure is much the same. A day or two before a colonoscopy, you have to take a strong laxative to ensure your colon is empty. Most people say that this is the worst part.


Q. I've had digestive problems since my early twenties, and have been diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome and "non-functional dyspepsia". A couple of years ago, in desperation, I tried a blood test for food intolerance, although I consider the ailment faddish. It indicated a low-grade intolerance of wheat and dairy. To my irritation and relief, if I cut out wheat and restrict dairy, I can drop my medications and feel better than when taking them. Now a friend has suggested that I might have "leaky gut syndrome", which has a plausible-sounding explanation for food intolerance. But when I Googled it, none of the sites were mainstream medical sites, and most sold costly supplements. Is this a real syndrome or a marketing ploy?

A. Leaky gut syndrome has certainly made it on to Google in a big way, but it hasn't yet appeared in the medical literature. The idea behind it is that the tiny spaces between the cells that line the intestine get too big and allow substances such as toxins and bacteria into the body. This is said to produce many illnesses, from fibromyalgia to food allergies.

Alternative practitioners say that mainstream doctors fail to recognise the syndrome. In fact, there has been substantial research into leaky guts. People with Crohn's disease have leaky guts; so do people with severe alcoholic liver disease. But there is no sound evidence that "leaky guts" lead to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), food allergies or gastritis.

If you feel better when you avoid wheat and dairy products, avoid them. Ask a friend to give you something that contains wheat without your knowing - if the symptoms recur, you are probably intolerant.

Please send your questions and suggestions to: A Question of Health, 'The Independent', Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; fax 020-7005 2182; or e-mail Dr Kavalier regrets that he is unable to respond personally to questions

Readers write

JG got rid of her children's head lice by combing and using essential oil:

My three children were plagued by recurring infestations of head lice, and the non-chemical combing routine was only partly successful owing to the one or two that often got away. All that changed, however, when I mixed a few drops of lavender oil with the conditioner prior to combing. Though it doesn't kill the lice, this essential oil appears to paralyse them, rendering them incapable of scuttling to another part of the head. The pleasant scent that lingers on the child's hair until the next wash also seems to have a deterrent effect.

Eventually, your correspondent may find that she can cut out the combing altogether, and rely simply on the conditioner/lavender oil mixture alone.