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Diversified Mental Activity and Mental Challenges Can Keep the Mind Sharp in Old Age

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Do you regularly do crossword puzzles? Have a regular bridge game or crafts group? Enjoy poking around on the computer? You’re likely at lower risk of developing memory and thinking problems compared to your peers who do few or none of these mentally stimulating activities, according to a large new study of seniors living in Minnesota.

For the study, researchers at the Mayo Clinic looked at 1,929 men and women who ranged in age from 70 to 93. All had normal memory and thinking skills at the start of the study.

The researchers assessed their cognitive skills regularly over the next four years. They found that those seniors who used the computer regularly had a 30 percent reduced risk of developing mild cognitive impairment over the next four years compared to their peers who were infrequent computer users. Mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, is a form of brain decline that can include short-term memory loss and that often precedes full-blown Alzheimer’s disease.

Those seniors who regularly did crafts, such as knitting or artwork, were 28 percent less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment compared to those who did not do these kinds of activities. Regular social engagement reduced the risk of MCI by 23 percent, while playing games reduced the risk by 22 percent. The findings appeared in JAMA Neurology, a journal from the American Medical Association.

“Our team found that persons who performed these activities at least one to two times per week had less cognitive decline than those who engaged in the same activities only two to three times per month or less,” said Dr. Yonas E. Geda, a psychiatrist and behavioral neurologist at the Mayo Clinic and the senior author of the study.

Brain benefits were evident in participants who engaged in cognitively challenging activities, including those who carried the APOE-E4 gene. More than one in four people carries the APOE-E4 gene, inherited from one or both parents, which increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s in old age, though not everyone who carries the gene will ultimately develop the disease.

“Even for a person who is at genetic risk for cognitive decline, engaging in some activities was beneficial,” said Janina Krell-Roesch, the first author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher in Dr. Geda’s lab.

Seniors are not the only ones who may benefit from mentally stimulating activities. Earlier studies have shown that engaging in mentally challenging tasks in the early and middle years seemed to be especially important for preventing the accumulation of beta-amyloid plaques, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.

Other research has shown that mental stimulation improved scores on memory and thinking tests for those who already have Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. Those with dementia who engaged in such activities also had increased feelings of well being and a better quality of life, including improved communication and interactions with those around them.

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

Source: Janina Krell-Roesch, PhD; Proshanthi Vemuri, PhD; Anna Pink, MD; et al: “Association Between Mentally Stimulating Activities in Late Life and the Outcome of Incident Mild Cognitive Impairment, With an Analysis of the APOE-E4 Genotype.” JAMA Neurology, published online Jan. 30, 2017

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