Brain training does not halt mental decline

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PuzzleA Scottish study shows that people who regularly do intellectual activities throughout life have higher mental abilities. This provides a ‘higher cognitive point’ from which to decline, but brain training in the form of puzzles, crosswords, etc does not make their decline any slower.

The idea of “use it or lose it” when it comes to our brains in later life has previously been widely accepted.

The report says the study was undertaken by Dr Roger Staff at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and the University of Aberdeen. It looked at 498 people born in 1936 who had taken part in a group intelligence test at the age of 11. This current study started when they were about 64 years old and they were recalled for memory and mental-processing-speed testing up to five times over a 15-year period. It found engagement in problem solving did not protect an individual from decline. However, engaging in intellectually stimulating activities on a regular basis was linked to level of mental ability in old age.

The report says the study uses modelling to look at associations and cannot prove any causal link. Also, many of the participants were unable to complete the whole study – some dropped out, others died.

The report says some previous studies have found that cognitive training can improve some aspects of memory and thinking, particularly for people who are middle-aged or older. They found so-called brain training may help older people to manage their daily tasks better. No studies have shown that brain training prevents dementia.

And last year the Global Council on Brain Health recommended that people should take part in stimulating activities such as learning a musical instrument, designing a quilt or gardening rather than brain training to help their brain function in later life. It said the younger a person started these activities, the better their brain function would be as they aged.

Staff and colleagues say even though their study did not find puzzles counteracted mental decline, it doesn’t mean they are a waste of time.

Dr David Reynolds, chief scientific officer at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said the research added to the “ongoing ‘use it or lose it’ debate”. But as the research did not consider people with dementia, “we can’t say from these results whether specific brain training activities could impact a person’s risk of the condition”.

“In addition to staying mentally active, keeping physically fit, eating a healthy balanced diet, not smoking, drinking within recommended guidelines and keeping weight, cholesterol and blood pressure in check are all good ways to support a healthy brain as we get older.”

Dr James Pickett, head of research at Alzheimer’s Society, said: “Although playing ‘brain games’ such as Sudoku may not prevent dementia, is has been shown that regularly challenging yourself mentally seems to build up the brain’s ability to cope with disease.”

Objectives: To examine the association between intellectual engagement and cognitive ability in later life, and determine whether the maintenance of intellectual engagement will offset age related cognitive decline.
Design: Longitudinal, prospective, observational study.
Setting: Non-clinical volunteers in late middle age (all born in 1936) living independently in northeast Scotland.
Participants: Sample of 498 volunteers who had taken part in the Scottish Mental Health Survey of 1947, from one birth year (1936).
Main outcome measures: Cognitive ability and trajectory of cognitive decline in later life. Typical intellectual engagement was measured by a questionnaire, and repeated cognitive measurements of information processing speed and verbal memory were obtained over a 15 year period (recording more than 1200 longitudinal data points for each cognitive test).
Results: Intellectual engagement was significantly associated with level of cognitive performance in later life, with each point on a 24 point scale accounting for 0.97 standardised cognitive performance (IQ-like) score, for processing speed and 0.71 points for memory (both P<0.05). Engagement in problem solving activities had the largest association with life course cognitive gains, with each point accounting for 0.43 standardised cognitive performance score, for processing speed and 0.36 points for memory (both P<0.05). However, engagement did not influence the trajectory of age related decline in cognitive performance. Engagement in intellectual stimulating activities was associated with early life ability, with correlations between engagement and childhood ability and education being 0.35 and 0.22, respectively (both P<0.01).
Conclusion: These results show that self reported engagement is not associated with the trajectory of cognitive decline in late life, but is associated with the acquisition of ability during the life course. Overall, findings suggest that high performing adults engage and those that engage more being protected from relative decline.

Roger T Staff, Michael J Hogan, Daniel S Williams, LJ Whalley

BBC News report
BMJ abstract

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