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.
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.
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.
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:
The study is published in JAMA Neurology.