A new study has found that mentally stimulating activities like using a computer, playing games, crafting and participating in social activities are linked to a lower risk or delay of age-related memory loss called mild cognitive impairment, and that the timing and number of these activities may also play a role.
The study is published in the July 10, 2019, online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a medical condition that is common with aging. While it is linked to problems with thinking ability and memory, it is not the same as dementia. People with MCI have milder symptoms.
They may struggle to complete complex tasks or have difficulty understanding information they have read, whereas people with dementia have trouble with daily tasks such as dressing, bathing and eating independently.
However, there is strong evidence that MCI can be a precursor of dementia.
“There are currently no drugs that effectively treat mild cognitive impairment, dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, so there is growing interest in lifestyle factors that may help slow brain aging believed to contribute to thinking and memory problems – factors that are low cost and available to anyone,” said study author Yonas E. Geda, MD, MSc, of the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., and a member of the American Academy of Neurology.
“Our study took a close look at how often people participated in mentally stimulating activities in both middle-age and later life, with a goal of examining when such activities may be most beneficial to the brain.”
For the study, researchers identified 2,000 people with an average age of 78 who did not have mild cognitive impairment.
At the start of the study, participants completed a questionnaire about how often they took part in five types of mentally stimulating activities during middle-age, defined as ages 50 to 65, and in later life, age 66 and older.
Participants were then given thinking and memory tests every 15 months and were followed for an average of five years.
During the study, 532 participants developed mild cognitive impairment.
Researchers found that using a computer in middle-age was associated with a 48-percent lower risk of mild cognitive impairment.
A total of 15 of 532 people who developed mild cognitive impairment, or 2 percent, used a computer in middle age compared to 77 of 1,468 people without mild cognitive impairment, or 5 percent.
Using a computer in later life was associated with a 30-percent lower risk, and using a computer in both middle-age and later life was associated with a 37-percent lower risk of developing thinking and memory problems.
Engaging in social activities, like going to movies or going out with friends, or playing games, like doing crosswords or playing cards, in both middle-age and later life were associated with a 20-percent lower risk of developing mild cognitive impairment.
Craft activities were associated with a 42-percent lower risk, but only in later life.
The more activities people engaged in during later life, the less likely they were to develop mild cognitive impairment.
Those who engaged in two activities were 28 percent less likely to develop memory and thinking problems than those who took part in no activities, while those who took part in three activities were 45 percent less likely, those with four activities were 56 percent less likely and those with five activities were 43 percent less likely.
“Our study was observational, so it is important to point out that while we found links between a lower risk of developing mild cognitive impairment and various mentally stimulating activities, it is possible that instead of the activities lowering a person’s risk, a person with mild cognitive impairment may not be able to participate in these activities as often,” Geda said.
“More research is needed to further investigate our findings.”
One strength of the study was the large number of participants; however a limitation was that participants were asked to remember how often they participated in mentally stimulating activities in middle-age, up to two decades before the study began, and their memories may not have been completely accurate.
Can Cognitive Training Prevent Alzheimer’s?
Cognitive training involves structured activities designed to enhance memory, reasoning, and speed of processing.
There is encouraging but inconclusive evidence that a specific, computer-based cognitive training may help delay or slow age-related cognitive decline.
However, there is no evidence that it can prevent or delay Alzheimer’s-related cognitive impairment.
Studies show that cognitive training can improve the type of cognition a person is trained in.
For example, older adults who received 10 hours of practice designed to enhance their speed and accuracy in responding to pictures presented briefly on a computer screen (“speed of processing” training) got faster and better at this specific task and other tasks in which enhanced speed of processing is important.
Similarly, older adults who received several hours of instruction on effective memory strategies showed improved memory when using those strategies.
The important question is whether such training has long-term benefits or translates into improved performance on daily activities like driving and remembering to take medicine.
Some of the strongest evidence that this might be the case comes from the NIA-sponsored Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) trial.
In this trial, healthy adults age 65 and older participated in 10 sessions of memory, reasoning, or speed-of-processing training with certified trainers during 5 to 6 weeks, with “booster sessions” made available to some participants 11 months and 3 years after initial training.
The sessions improved participants’ mental skills in the area in which they were trained (but not in other areas), and improvements persisted years after the training was completed.
In addition, participants in all three groups reported that they could perform daily activities with greater independence as many as 10 years later, although there was no objective data to support this.
Findings from long-term observational studies – in which researchers observed behavior but did not influence or change it – also suggest that informal cognitively stimulating activities, such as reading or playing games, may lower risk of Alzheimer’s-related cognitive impairment and dementia.
For example, a study of nearly 2,000 cognitively normal adults 70 and older found that participating in games, crafts, computer use, and social activities for about 4 years was associated with a lower risk of MCI.
Scientists think that some of these activities may protect the brain by establishing “reserve,” the brain’s ability to operate effectively even when it is damaged or some brain function is disrupted.
Another theory is that such activities may help the brain become more adaptable in some mental functions so it can compensate for declines in others. Scientists do not know if particular types of cognitive training – or elements of the training such as instruction or social interaction – work better than others, but many studies are ongoing.
Journal information: Neurology
Provided by American Academy of Neurology