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Creative Endeavors May Help Keep the Mind Sharp in Old Age

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Elderly men and women who regularly engaged in arts and crafts activities, had a busy social life or used computers in midlife and beyond were more likely to have intact minds and memories than adults who didn’t do these activities. Those are the findings from a new study that looked at activities that may help protect against memory loss and dementia in the very old.

For the study, part of the Mayo Clinic Study of Aging and published in the journal Neurology, researchers enrolled 256 men and women in their late 80s. They were given regular memory assessments over the next four years, and their medical records were reviewed.

During this time, 121 of the elderly participants developed mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, a form of memory loss that can be a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. Although some people with MCI go on to develop dementia, not everyone with the condition gets it.

The researchers identified various medical conditions that increased the risk of developing serious memory problems. Among them were carrying the APOE-E4 gene, which predisposes to Alzheimer’s disease; having a history of high blood pressure or other vascular diseases in middle age; or have a history of depression.

But certain behaviors, the researchers found, were correlated with a decreased risk of mild cognitive impairment, which might suggest that these behaviors protect against the onset of memory loss or other cognitive problems. And the earlier these activities were started, the more pronounced their possible effects on the brain appeared to be.

The risk of MCI was about 75 percent lower in those seniors who regularly engaged in artistic activities, such as sculpting and woodworking, both in midlife and late in life. Additional arts and crafts that study participants reporting engaging in included painting, drawing, pottery, ceramics, quilting, quilling and sewing.

The study also found that the risk of serious memory problems was about half as likely in those who had a busy social life or engaged in social activities like going to the movies, theater or concerts, participating in book clubs or Bible study, or travel, in their middle years and beyond.

And those who used computers late in life were also about 50 percent less likely to develop MCI, the researchers reported. Computer activities including using the Internet, playing computer games, conducting web searches and purchasing things online.

“As millions of older adults are reaching the age where they may experience these memory and thinking problem called mild cognitive impairment, it is important we look to find lifestyle changes that may stave off the condition,” said study author Rosebud Roberts of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “Our study supports the idea that engaging the mind may protect neurons, or the building blocks of the brain, from dying, stimulate growth of new neurons, or may help recruit new neurons to maintain cognitive activities in old age.”

There is still no cure for mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s, and age and genetic factors play a big role in who gets the disease. But, as this study shows, there is growing evidence that the risk of developing dementia may be modified by lifestyle factors.

In addition to mental stimulation and creative activities, regular exercise and a heart-healthy diet may help to prevent illnesses like high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes, all of which have been shown to increase dementia risk. And the sooner these healthful behaviors are started, the better, other studies show.

In an editorial accompanying the study, Dr. James E. Galvin of NYU Langone Medical Center in New York suggested updating the adage “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” He writes, “Perhaps today the expression should expand to include painting an apple, going to the store with a friend to buy an apple, and using an Apple product.”

By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by William J. Netzer, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.

Source: Roberts RO, Cha RH, Mielke MM, et al. Risk and protective factors for cognitive impairment in persons aged 85 years and older. Neurology 2015;84, 2015.

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