For some time now, doctors anecdotally have said that seniors who keep their brains sharp -- even with simple word finds and other puzzles -- stave off memory problems.
Now, a study published Jan. 30 in JAMA Neurology puts some science behind this theory. In a sample of 1,929 adults, playing games and crafting, using a computer, and engaging in social activities were associated with decreased risk of mild cognitive impairment, or MCI. (1)
The first-of-its-kind experiment included a sample from the Mayo Clinic Study of Aging in Olmsted County, Minn. Most of the participants were white, with a median age of 77 at the start of the study, and an average education level of 14 years. All of the subjects had normal cognitive (memory and thinking) skills at baseline.
The researchers followed these seniors for four years, having them report the extent to which they exercised their minds daily. The researchers performed regular assessments of memory and cognition.
The researchers, led by Dr. Yonas E. Geda of Mayo Scottsdale, found that using a computer had the most significant impact on lowering the risk of cognitive impairment, followed by playing games and crafting, and engaging in social activities. Reading books did not result in a statistically significant impact in reducing memory problems, but came close, the researchers reported.
The results were based on seniors who performed the above-mentioned activities at least once or twice per week.
The study sample included more than 500 participants who carried the APOE E4 genotype, which is known to increase dementia risk. “APOE4 alleles are the great genetic risk factor for late-onset Alzheimer's," reports Cognitive Vitality, a non-profit foundation that raises money to fund pharmaceutical treatments of dementia. (2) “Many people develop Alzheimer's who don't have an APOE4 allele. It does, however, increase your risk for developing the disease as well as lower the age of potential disease onset."
Exercising mind beneficial even to those with genetic risk
“After adjusting for sex, age, and educational level, we observed that playing games and engaging in craft activities, computer use and social activities were associated with a decreased risk of incident MCI," the authors reported. “Additional adjustment for medical comorbidity, depression, and APOE4 genotype did not significantly alter the results."
Among study participants who did not have APOE4, of 1,077 who used a computer, 193 developed MCI. Of 276 subjects with APOE4, 61 computer users developed MCI. The researchers found that among carriers of APOE4, only computer use and engaging in social activities resulted in reduced risk of developing MCI.
“We consistently observed the lowest risk of incident MCI in participants who engaged in any type of mentally stimulating activity and were APOE4 noncarriers compared with the reference group," the authors reported. “In contrast, participants who were APOE4 carriers and did not engage in mentally stimulating activities tended to have the highest risk for incident MCI."
Of the total sample, including those with and without APOE4, 456 people developed MCI, or 24 percent.
Mild cognitive impairment is defined as thinking problems in the range between normal memory loss associated with aging and dementia which leads to an impaired ability to carry out the activities of daily living. Cognitive decline often is what ultimately causes a senior to lose their independence.
Computer use had the most widespread benefits
“Our study could not disentangle why some mentally stimulating activities (e.g. computer use) had a larger effect size on the decreased risk of incident MCI than other activities (e.g. reading books)," the authors reported. “However, we speculate that a particular mental activity (e.g. computer use) may require specific technical and manual skills and that these could be the factors that might be associated with a decreased risk of cognitive decline."
There are two types of MCI. Those are amnestic, meaning memory is significantly impaired, and non-amnestic, where memory remains intact but daily activities such as talking, visual-spatial skills and executive function (putting thoughts into action) are affected. (3)
“We observed significant associations between craft activities, computer use and social activities and a decrease risk of incident amnestic MCI," the authors reported. “However, we observed a significant association only between computer use and a decreased risk of incident nonamnestic MCI."
Social activities included outings such as going to the movies or the theater. Many seniors become socially inactive late in life due to the loss of a spouse or close friends. Seniors are encouraged to stay active by enrolling in programs at senior centers or even taking a class through their local parks and recreation departments. Most cities even offer seniors classes on how to use a computer, which is far less intimidating than many seniors believe. Computers never have been easier to use.
"Future research is needed to understand the mechanisms linking mentally stimulating activities and cognition late in life," the study concludes.
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