Reading the newspaper, writing letters, visiting the library or playing games like chess or checkers in old age may help keep the mind mentally fit, new research suggests. The results show that mental stimulation might be effective even late in life, a time when memory is most likely to undergo dramatic decline, according to another report.
Both studies add to a growing body of evidence that mentally challenging tasks are good for the brain. They come from researchers at Rush University in Chicago and were published in Neurology, a journal from the American Academy of Neurology.
The first report involved 1,076 elderly men and women who were free of Alzheimer’s or other forms of the dementia at the study’s start. Their average age was 80. They underwent annual memory tests, and also filled out questionnaires about how often they did things like reading the newspaper, writing letters, visiting the library or playing board games. Some did these activities as little as once a year; other did them almost every day.
The researchers found that over all, seniors who engaged in such mentally stimulating tasks had slower rates of decline in memory and thinking skills. The researchers also found that they could predict how well someone would do on memory tests by looking at their levels of engagement in mentally stimulating activities the previous year.
“The results suggest a cause and effect relationship -- that being mentally active leads to better cognitive health in old age,” said Robert S. Wilson, one of the study authors.
The findings offer new evidence that mental challenges stem memory decline late in life. This is important, since memory loss tends to be most rapid in the years before death, as the second study showed. For this study, the researchers looked at memory test results in 174 Catholic priests, nuns and monks who were free of dementia and other serious memory problems. All were tested yearly for six to 15 years before they died. After death, scientists examined their brains for signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Each study is sourced below.
The researchers found that in general, memory loss tended to be relatively gradual for much of the time. But two to three years before death, various memory and thinking abilities both tended to decline much faster -- at rates that were 8 to 17 times higher than before.
Interestingly, those whose brains had high levels of plaques and tangles, which are hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, did not have a higher rate of decline in memory loss near the end of life, though they did tend to have an earlier onset of memory decline in general. In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Hiroko H. Dodge of Oregon Health and Science University noted that these findings “suggest that the changes in mental abilities during the two to three years before death are not driven directly by processes related to Alzheimer’s disease, but instead that the memory and other cognitive decline may involve some biological changes in the brain specific to the end of life.”
Other studies have found that those who more frequently participate in mentally stimulating activities have a lower rate of cognitive decline and a lower risk of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia in old age. It’s possible that participating in mentally challenging activities somehow strengthens brain function. Alternatively, those who have memory problems already may simply be less likely to do activities like reading or crossword puzzles. More research is needed to determine how mental challenges affect brain function.
Robert S. Wilson, PhD, Eisuke Segawa, PhD, Patricia A. Boyle, PhD, David A. Bennett, MD: “Influence of Late-Life Cognitive Activity on Cognitive Health.” Neurology, Vol. 78, April 4, 2012, pages 1123-1129.
Hiroko H. Dodge, PHD, Daniel C. Marson, JD, PhD: “Illuminating Cognitive Dedifferentiation at the End of Life” (editorial). Neurology, Vol. 78, April 4, 2012, pages 1110-1111.
R. S. Wilson, PhD, E. Sagawa, PhD, L. P. Hizel, B.A., et al: “Terminal Differentiation of Cognitive Abilities.” Neurology, Vol. 78, April 4, 2012, pages 1116-1122.