People who spend a lot of time reading, writing and
otherwise seeking and processing new information lose their thinking and memory
skills more slowly as they age, a new study suggests. Researchers found being
"cognitively active" both early and later in life was tied to better
performance on memory tests among people in their 80s.
That was still the case once they autopsied participants'
brains after they died and accounted for changes that signal cognitive
problems, such as early Alzheimer's disease.
"There's been a real controversy about why a
cognitively active lifestyle is associated with (a lower risk of) cognitive
decline," said Robert Wilson, who led the study at Rush University Medical
Center in Chicago". One theory has been that cognitive inactivity is
simply a consequence of the underlying disease, rather than a true risk
factor," he told Reuters Health. But the new study, Wilson said, suggests
the link is not explained by people who have more diseased brains being less
active in old age.
He and his colleagues
asked more than 1 600 older adults starting in 1997 about how often they went
to the library, wrote letters and sought information as a child and young adult
and more recently. Then they gave participants a thinking and memory test every
year and tracked their progress.
The new study included 294 of those participants who died at
an average age of 89 and underwent a brain autopsy to look for
cognition-related changes. They had each taken an average of six annual
cognitive tests during the study, which showed that 102 developed dementia and
51 developed mild cognitive impairment. On a scale of 1 to 5 measuring how
often a person engaged in cognitively stimulating activities, with 1 being the
least frequent, the average participant scored a 3.2 for late-life cognitive
activity and a 3.1 for early-life activity.
Compared to people with average late-life cognitive
activity, thinking and memory skills declined 48% faster among those with infrequent
activity and 32% slower among those who were the most cognitively active.
Likewise, the study team found cognition declined 42% faster for participants
who rarely read and wrote early in life than for the average person, and 32%
slower for the very cognitively active.
Keep minds working
that the effect of cognitive activity is over and above anything having to do
with pathology," said Charles Hall, who has studied the effects of mental
activity at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, New
York."We've been thinking for a long time that there's not going to be any
harm from cognitive activity and there might be some good, and this is more
confirmation of that," Hall, who wasn't involved in the new research, told
The study, published Wednesday in Neurology, doesn't prove
that being mentally active wards off cognitive decline. But Wilson said he
thinks it "moves us closer to that"."We do think a cognitively
active lifestyle is good for your cognitive health and brain health in old
age," he said. But keeping mentally busy shouldn't be a chore, he added.
Wilson said photography, quilting and book clubs may all keep people's minds
He recommended that people choose something stimulating and
challenging that they enjoy and can keep doing as they age. Prashanthi Vemuri
of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, who co-wrote an editorial
accompanying the new study, also told Reuters Health the type of mental
activity doesn't seem to matter as much as just being active in general. And
it's never too late to start, she noted."Just keeping mentally stimulated
is very important," Vemuri said.