March 6, 2009

Books, Games, and Computers — but Not TV — Help Ward off Memory Loss

Games, books and even time on the computer can help us maintain mental power as we age. TV doesn't appear to offer the mental exercise the brain...
According to a new study, reading books and newspapers, playing games, and even working on the computer may help prevent the memory problems that often accompany the aging process. The study provides nice evidence that continuing to do these normal daily activities may help fend off cognitive decline.

Those who participated in many of these activities as middle-aged people were 40% less likely to suffer from memory loss later.

Researchers from the Mayo Clinic looked at 197 people who were suffering from mild memory loss and 1,124 who were not (all participants were between 70 and 89 years old). They gave the participants questionnaires that addressed their typical daily activities, including arts and crafts, reading magazines and newspapers, using the computer, playing games, and watching T.V.; the subjects were asked how much they engaged in these activities while they were middle-aged (50s and 60s) and up through the previous year.

Those who participated in many of these activities as middle-aged people were 40% less likely to suffer from memory loss later. Interestingly, those who watched T.V. for fewer than seven hours per day were 50% less likely to suffer from memory loss as those who watched T.V. for more than seven hours per day -- these serious T.V.-watchers were at a significantly increased risk for memory loss.

Head researcher Yonas Geda underlines that "[a]ging does not need to be a passive process. By simply engaging in cognitive exercise, you can protect against future memory loss."

He also points out a slight drawback in the study: "Of course, the challenge with this type of research is that we are relying on past memories of the participants, therefore, we need to confirm these findings with additional research." In other words, relying on the memory of participants, some of whom were selected precisely because of their memory problems, may not be a reliable way to collect data. A long-term study looking into the same question would be a good follow-up in the future.

Despite this shortcoming, the study provides encouraging evidence that, like exercising the body, staying mentally active and maintaining hobbies (and turning off the T.V.!) are excellent ways to keep the brain "fit," too.

The findings will be presented at American Academy of Neurology's 61st Annual Meeting in Seattle, Washington.
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