Challenging the mind early with education and stimulating work, and later in life with reading, socializing and computer use, may help keep it thinking clearly into old age, according to new research.
In the study of people in their seventies and eighties without dementia, those with more years of education, mentally stimulating jobs and greater amounts of cognitive activity in middle and later life started experiencing memory and thinking problems up to nine years later than those with the least enriched lives.
“We knew that lifetime intellectual enrichment can delay the onset of cognitive decline, but here we were able to estimate how much it helps you,” said lead author Prashanthi Vemuri, a radiologist at the Mayo Clinic and Foundation in Rochester, Minnesota.
Factors earlier in life, including education and employment, and mental stimulation later in life were both very important, she told Reuters Health.
Although education and employment seemed to be more important overall, mid- and later-life cognitive activity accounted for at least a few of the extra sharp-witted years. And those with less education early in life saw the largest benefit from mental stimulation in later life.
To gauge the effect of exercising the mind regularly later in life, Vemuri and her team used questionnaires to assess how challenging the study participants’ school and work had been, as well as how much they challenged their brains during their middle age and later years with activities like reading, socializing or using a computer.
Men and women who had more years of education and worked in a mentally stimulating job, for example as a surgeon, experienced mental decline about five years later than people with less education or those who worked in more manual jobs, according to the results published June 23 in JAMA Neurology.
But it was encouraging how much later-life activity seemed to make a difference for people who had less education and less stimulating jobs, Vemuri said.
Regardless of education and work history, people who challenged their brains at least three times per week delayed the onset of cognitive decline by more than three years compared to those who did less.
“Individuals with greater educational/occupational ‘brain reserve’ are more resistant to the effects of cognitive decline,” said Kevin Duff. “However, if you don't get this reserve early in life, then it appears that cognitive stimulating activities in mid/late life can also have beneficial effects.”
Duff, who was not a part of the new study, is a neuropsychologist at the Center for Alzheimer's Care, Imaging and Research at the University of Utah Health Care in Salt Lake City.
People who had beneficial early- and late-life cognitive factors delayed decline in thinking by more than eight years. Both margins are considerable, Vemuri said.
Other studies have supported the notion that cognitive activity at various points throughout life is protective against cognitive decline and dementia, Duff told Reuters Health by email.
This study only assessed an association and did not test whether brain activity actually staves off cognitive decline, Vemuri noted, but it makes sense that challenging yourself mentally “keeps brain connectivity up and running.”
Compared to dementia, cognitive decline is mild, Duff said.
“It does not tend to interfere with daily activities, like driving, managing meds, handling money, cooking,” he said. “When it does get so severe that it interferes with daily activities, then we usually diagnose this as dementia.”
Stimulating activities could include reading, doing crossword puzzles, playing bridge, painting, taking a class at a community college, playing a musical instrument, or even playing video games, he said. People should pick activities they enjoy because they are more likely to keep doing them, he advised.
These results could be useful both for individuals and for public health authorities, Vemuri said.
“For people with low education, if you’re able to help them by providing mentally stimulating activities later in life, that could delay cognitive decline by three years, and that really is a big number,” she said.