April 7, 2014
Reading books and magazines, writing and participating in other mentally stimulating activities, no matter your age, can help to keep memory and thinking skills intact, a new study suggests. The findings add to growing evidence that mental challenges like reading and doing crossword puzzles may help to preserve brain health and stave off symptoms of Alzheimer’s in old age.
“Our study suggests that exercising your brain by taking part in activities such as these across a person’s lifetime, from childhood through old age, is important for brain health in old age,” said study author Robert S. Wilson, at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. The findings appeared in Neurology, the American Academy of Neurology’s medical journal.
The study looked at a subset of participants in the large and ongoing Rush Memory and Aging Project, which is looking at men and women over many years to look for clues to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. For this study, researchers looked closely at 294 elderly men and women, most in their 80s, who were given tests of memory and thinking every year in the last years of their lives.
The study participants also completed questionnaires about how often they engaged in mentally stimulating tasks, such as reading books, visiting a library or writing letters. They were asked about how frequently they participated in such activities during childhood, in young adulthood, in middle age and as seniors in their current lives.
After they died, at an average age of 89, their brains were examined at autopsy for evidence of the physical signs of dementia, including the brain plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s disease.
The researchers found that people who participated in mentally challenging activities most often, both early and late in life, had a slower rate of decline in memory compared to those who did not engage in such activities. Even when people had plaques and tangles and other signs of damage to their brains, mental stimulation seemed to help protect memory and thinking skills, accounting for about 14 percent of the difference in decline beyond what would be expected.
“Based on this, we shouldn’t underestimate the effects of everyday activities, such as reading and writing, on our children, ourselves and our parents or grandparents,” said Dr. Wilson.
These findings support the so-called cognitive reserve hypothesis of mental function. According to this theory, mentally challenging tasks help to maintain and build brain cells and connections between brain cells. Later in life, these connections help to compensate for damage to the brain caused by Alzheimer’s and dementia – or just plain old age – thereby helping to preserve memory and thinking skills.
Other studies have shown that mentally challenging tasks can help to build brain cells and connections. Researchers have documented increased brain volume among people who engaged in such diverse cognitive activities as studying for medical exams, apprenticing as a London taxi driver, deciphering mirrored words or Morse codes, learning novel color names and performing brainteasers.
The results of the current study raise the exciting possibility that we can take measures even in our 70s, 80s and beyond to help stem the decline of dementia. The study found that the rate of decline was reduced by 32 percent in people with frequent mental activity in late life, compared to people with an average amount of mental stimulation. The rate of decline of those with infrequent activity, by contrast, was 48 percent faster than those with an average amount of mental challenge.
“This finding potentially addresses a question that all of us ask from time to time — can we do anything to slow down late-life cognitive decline,” write the authors of an editorial accompany the study. “The results suggest yes,” they go on to say. “Read more books, write more, and do activities that keep your brain busy irrespective of your age.”
They note that more research is needed in larger groups of people to determine how, and whether, mental stimulation may protect the brain. But, they conclude, “Until then, the best advice is simple: ‘A busy mind to keep dementia at bay.’ “
Sources: Robert S. Wilson PhD, Patricia A. Boyle PhD, Lei Yu, PhD, et al: “Life-span Cognitive Activity, Neuropathologic Burden, and Cognitive Aging.” Neurology, Vol. 81. 2013.
Prashanthi Vemuri, PhD, Elizabeth C. Mormino, PhD: “Cognitive Stimulating Activities to Keep Dementia at Bay.” Neurology, Vol 81. 2013