All of us expect to stay relatively mentally sound as we age, but sometimes, it comes without warning. Is there a way to keep mentally active for as long as possible, even into old age? A new study suggests that reading books or writing letters helps protect the brain as we get older.
“A lifetime of mental challenges leads to slower cognitive decline after factoring out dementia’s impact on the brain,” US researchers say. “The study, published in Neurology, adds weight to the idea that dementia onset can be delayed by lifestyle factors.”
In a US study, 294 people over the age of 55 were given tests that measured memory and thinking every year for about six years until their deaths. Then, they answered a questionnaire about whether or not they read books, wrote letters or took part in activities that stimulated their mentality throughout the duration of their childhood, adolescence, middle age and old age.
Their brains were examined posthumously for evidence of the physical signs of dementia, such as brain lesions and plaques. It was discovered from the study that after factoring out the impact of those signs, those who had a record of keeping the brain busy had an estimated 15% slower rate of cognitive decline than those who did not.
Dr Robert Wilson, of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, who led the study, said the research suggested exercising the brain across a lifetime was important for brain health in old age. He told BBC News: “The brain that we have in old age depends in part on what we habitually ask it to do in life. What you do during your lifetime has a great impact on the likelihood these age-related diseases are going to be expressed.”
Dementia exacts a heavy toll on society, with an estimated 6.8 million dementia victims in the USA, and 35 million worldwide. Commenting on the study, Dr Simon Ridley, head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said there was increasing evidence mental activity may help protect against cognitive decline. But the underlying reasons for this remained unclear.
“By examining donated brain tissue, this study has shed more light on this complex question, and the results lend weight to the theory that mental activity may provide a level of ‘cognitive reserve’, helping the brain resist some of the damage from diseases such as Alzheimer’s,” he said.
Dr James Pickett, head of research at the Alzheimer’s Society, added: “More research and bigger studies are needed, but in the meantime reading more and doing crosswords can be enjoyable and certainly won’t do you any harm. The best way to reduce your risk of developing dementia is to eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight.”
This is not a surprise to any who are trying to retain a healthy lifestyle, but it’ s a good reminder that health, especially mental health, doesn’t just apply to one’s present life, but becomes even more important with age.