Brain-Stimulating Activities May Keep Seniors Sharp

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Elderly adults who use a computer or engage in other brain-stimulating activities may reduce their risk of developing memory and thinking problems later in life, a new study suggests.

The study found that U.S. adults ages 70 or older who engaged in mentally stimulating activities at least once or twice a week were less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment four years later, compared with those who did not engage in mentally stimulating activities as frequently. Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a condition in which people experience noticeable declines in their memory and thinking skills, but are still able to perform everyday activities.

The findings suggest that "engaging in mentally stimulating activities, even in late life, may be protective against new-onset MCI," the researchers, from the Mayo Clinic, wrote in the Jan. 30 issue of the journal JAMA Neurology. [8 Tips for Healthy Aging]

Previous studies have found that engagement in mentally stimulating activities is linked to a reduced risk of having Alzheimer's disease or MCI. However, many of these studies analyzed information from people at a single point in time. This type of study design makes it harder for researchers to determine whether mentally stimulating activities really do reduce the risk of these cognitive problems, or whether people who already have these problems are simply less likely to engage in mentally stimulating activities.

In the new study, researchers analyzed information from nearly 2,000 elderly adults with an average age of 77 living in Minnesota. Participants were screened to make sure they did not already have cognitive problems at the start of the study, and they were tested again every 15 months during the study period. They were also asked how often they engaged in mentally stimulating activities, including playing games, using a computer, making crafts or participating in social activities.

Participants who engaged in these activities once or twice a week were about 20 to 30 percent less likely to develop MCI during the study period, compared with those who engaged in these activities just a few times a month or less, the study found.

However, the study researchers could not determine why these mentally stimulating activities reduced the risk of developing MCI, and so more research is needed to investigate this, the researchers said.

In addition, the study did not account for some other factors that could influence participants' risk of developing MCI, such as diet and exercise.

The study also did not account for mentally stimulating activities that people performed earlier in their lives, which might also affect the results, the researchers said.

Original article on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.