Use it or lose it: Mentally stimulating activities and age-related memory loss

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ComputerA a five-year 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 and that the timing and number of these activities may also play a role.

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a medical condition that is common with ageing. 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 Dr Yonas E Geda, of the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, 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% lower risk of mild cognitive impairment. A total of 15 of 532 people who developed mild cognitive impairment, or 2%, used a computer in middle age compared to 77 of 1,468 people without mild cognitive impairment, or 5%. Using a computer in later life was associated with a 30% lower risk, and using a computer in both middle-age and later life was associated with a 37% 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% lower risk of developing mild cognitive impairment.

Craft activities were associated with a 42% 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% 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% less likely, those with four activities were 56% less likely and those with five activities were 43% 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.

The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute on Ageing, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Robert H and Clarice Smith and Abigail Van Buren Alzheimer’s Disease Research Programme, the GHR Foundation, the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, the Edli Foundation and the Arizona Alzheimers Consortium.

Objective: To investigate whether timing, number, and frequency of mentally stimulating activities in midlife and late life are associated with the risk of incident mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
Methods: We conducted a prospective cohort study in the setting of the population-based Mayo Clinic Study of Aging in Olmsted County, Minnesota, including 2,000 individuals aged ≥70 years who were cognitively unimpaired at baseline and were followed for a median of 5.0 years. Participants completed a self-reported survey on timing, number, and frequency of engagement in 5 mentally stimulating activities (reading books, computer use, social activities, playing games, craft activities) at baseline.
Results: The risk of incident MCI was significantly reduced for participants who engaged in social activities (hazard ratio [95% confidence interval] 0.80 [0.64–0.99]) and playing games (0.80 [0.66–0.98]) in both late life and midlife combined. Using a computer was associated with a decreased risk regardless of timing (not late life but midlife: 0.52 [0.31–0.88]; late life but not midlife: 0.70 [0.56–0.88]; late life and midlife: 0.63 [0.51–0.79]). Craft activities were associated with a reduced risk of incident MCI only when carried out in late life but not midlife (0.58 [0.34–0.97]). Furthermore, engaging in a higher number of activities in late life was associated with a significantly reduced risk of incident MCI (any 2 activities: 0.72 [0.53–0.99], any 3: 0.55 [0.40–0.77], any 4: 0.44 [0.30–0.65], all 5: 0.57 [0.34–0.96]).
Conclusion: Engaging in a higher number of mentally stimulating activities, particularly in late life, is associated with a decreased risk of MCI among community-dwelling older persons.

Janina Krell-Roesch, Jeremy A Syrjanen, Maria Vassilaki, Mary M Machulda, Michelle M Mielke, David S Knopman, Walter K Kremers, Ronald C Petersen, Yonas E Geda

American Academy of Neurology material
Neurology abstract

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