February 15, 2017

Give Your Mind A Hedge Against Memory Problems

Some surprising — and fulfilling — ways to reduce your chances of cognitive impairment.

As people age, they can develop mild cognitive impairment (MCI). They may have some difficulties with memory, language, thinking and reasoning skills, but these do not interfere with daily functioning in any serious way. MCI can remain stable, or it can progress to full blown dementia; although it is not clear whether it is a distinct condition or part of the same continuum.

As elderly populations grow around the globe, considerable research is being focused on MCI and dementia, specifically looking at ways to prevent, slow or halt onset and progression.

Those seniors who were most engaged in playing games, working on crafts, computer use and social activities had a significant reduction in the risk of mild cognitive impairment.

A recent study looked at the role of cognitive activities performed in later life and the risk of developing MCI. Mentally stimulating activities included reading, crafts, computer use, playing games and social activities such as going to the movies and theater. The researchers, from the Mayo Clinic and the International Clinical Research Center, Brno, Czech Republic, wanted to see if elderly people who participated in mentally stimulating activities at least one to two times each week would be less at risk for new onset MCI than their peers.

Over 1900 people, aged 70 or older, were enrolled in the study. All were cognitively normal at the start, and each person's cognitive function was reassessed every 15 months. Researchers asked how often enrollees participated in each type of mentally stimulating activity for the year preceding the start of the study.

During the course of the study, 456 of the seniors developed an MCI that had not been present at the start. Those seniors who were most engaged in playing games, working on crafts, computer use and social activities had a significant reduction in the risk of mild cognitive impairment. People who read books also had a decreased risk, but it was less significant.

Even among those participants who were genetically predisposed to cognitive impairment — those carrying the APOE ɛ4 gene — mentally stimulating activities decreased the risk of mental problems compared to their less stimulated, gene-carrier peers.

There are several possible mechanisms, based mostly on animal studies, that may explain, according to the researchers, this association between mentally stimulating activities and cognitive protection:

  • Enriched environments, such as can be created by crafting, computer use and social contact, have been shown to prevent nerve cell dysfunction and to improve the recovery of damaged cells.
  • When cognitive stimulation is increased, there are fewer beta amyloid deposits in the brain's cortex.
  • Mental activity has been associated with the preservation of portions of brain lobes, such as the hippocampus.
  • Finally, it has been found that engaging in mentally stimulating activities makes a person more likely to do other protective activities such as physical exercise.
  • While the precise mechanisms are not yet clear, the evidence supports the idea that mentally stimulating activities in later life may decrease, delay or prevent the onset of mild cognitive impairment in seniors. Senior citizens, as well as those who care for and about them, may wish to seek ways to enrich their cognitively stimulating experiences on a very regular basis.

    The study is published in JAMA Neurology.

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