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Mentally Challenging Puzzles May Be Good for Your Brain

August 3, 2021

Reading, solving puzzles and engaging in other mentally challenging activities later in life may delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease by up to five years, according to a new report. The study adds to growing evidence that cognitive stimulation helps keep the brain working well.

“The good news is that it’s never too late to start doing the kinds of inexpensive, accessible activities we looked at in our study,” said study author Robert S. Wilson, of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “Our findings suggest it may be beneficial to start doing these things, even in your 80s, to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s dementia.” The study was published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

For the study, researchers at Rush assessed more than 1.900 older men and women, average age 80, none of whom had dementia at the study’s start. They were given regular tests of memory and thinking skills for up to 22 years.

Study participants also filled out questionnaires about how often they engaged in cognitively stimulating activities. They asked the following seven questions:

About how much time do you spend reading each day?

In the last year, how often did you visit a library?

Thinking of the last year, how often do you read newspapers?

During the last year, how often did you read magazines?

During the past year, how often did you read books.

During the past year, how often did you write letters.

During the past year, how often did you play games like checkers or other board games, cards, puzzles, etc.?

They were then ranked on a scale of one to five on how often or how long they engaged in each of these activities. For reading, for example, low scores ranged from less than an hour a day of reading to three or more hours. For other activities, like playing games or doing puzzles, low scores ranged from once a year or less; to every week or two; to nearly every day.

By the end of the study, about a quarter of the participants had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. People with the highest levels of activity, on average, developed dementia at age 94. The people with the lowest cognitive activity, on average, developed dementia at age 89. The researchers factored in other risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease, such as years of formal schooling, and found that engaging in mentally challenging activities seemed to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease by several years.

“Our study shows that people who engage in more cognitively stimulating activities may be delaying the age at which they develop dementia,” Dr. Wilson said.

The researchers also examined the brains of 695 people who had died during the study period. They found no association between brain signs of Alzheimer’s disease (e.g., amyloid plaques and tau tangles) and a greater tendency to engage in mentally stimulating activities. That is, it did not appear that early dementia was leading to a lack of engagement in cognitive activity.

The findings are consistent with earlier studies showing that keeping our brain engaged as much as possible by reading, writing, doing crossword puzzles and solving challenging puzzles may be linked to a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Other studies have shown, for example, that the more often someone engages in mentally stimulating activities throughout life, the less buildup of beta-amyloid, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s, they were likely to have in the brain. Other studies suggest that the brains of seniors who engage in mentally stimulating activities most often are not reflecting their biological age and are comparable to those of younger people. Older people with the least cognitive stimulation, on the other hand, have brains that more closely resemble those of Alzheimer’s patients.

Alzheimer’s is a complex disease, with genetics, advancing age, and possibly many other factors contributing to its onset and course. Cognitive activity, this and other research suggests, is just one important component of keeping a healthy brain, and it is never too late to take care of your brain.

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: Robert S. Wilson, PhD; Tianhao Wang, PhD; Lei Yu, PhD; et al: “Cognitive Activity and Onset Age of Incident Alzheimer Disease Dementia.” Neurology, July 14, 2021

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