Stretch Your Brain as You Age, Lower Your Dementia Risk?

MONDAY, July 17, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- Writing letters, taking classes and playing mentally stimulating games like chess in your older years could lower your risk of dementia over the next decade, a new study suggests.

Researchers in Australia found that journaling, using a computer, taking education classes and other "literacy enrichment" activities might lessen the risk of developing dementia by 11%. Playing games, cards or chess and doing crosswords or other puzzles could slash the risk by 9%.

"These findings highlight the types of activities which may be most beneficial to preserve cognitive health with aging," said lead researcher Joanne Ryan, head of the biological neuropsychiatry and dementia unit at Monash University, in Melbourne.

Other activities linked to a lower risk of dementia included artistic activities, such as craftwork, woodwork or metalwork, and painting or drawing. Even passive activities, such as reading, watching television, and listening to music or the radio helped thwart mental decline, but to a lesser degree.

Interpersonal networks, social activities and outings, however, did not affect dementia risk, the researchers noted.

This study can't prove that these mental activities actually prevent or delay dementia, only that there seems to be a correlation, Ryan said.

"We can't show a cause-and-effect relationship," she said. "But these activities likely help maintain and build neural networks in the brain, and through these activities, we can develop new knowledge and new ways of thinking about things, which we refer to as building cognitive reserve."

These activities could help people maintain good cognitive function, even if they have some degree of Alzheimer's or vascular dementia, she said. "They can develop compensatory mechanisms and, thus, don't develop dementia until later," Ryan explained.

It is possible there are other reasons for the findings, Ryan said. "Although we accounted for things like differences in education and socioeconomic status, as well as health status, it is possible that people who engage regularly in these mental activities are different in other ways that we haven't been able to account for, which explains why they have reduced dementia risk," she said.

It's unlikely that mentally stimulating activities can completely prevent dementia but they might delay its onset, Ryan added.

"Continued learning and engagement in new activities which challenge and stimulate the mind may be the best way to help promote good cognitive function with age," she suggested.

One expert agreed that keeping your brain active can help keep it healthy.

"Music, art, other activities, crossword puzzles, things like that absolutely help reduce the transitioning into dementia," said Dr. Theodore Strange, chairman of medicine and a gerontologist at Staten Island University Hospital in New York City.

"Even plaque buildup may slow over time if you continue to do these cognitive activities that use the brain," he said.

The brain isn't a muscle, Strange said, but like a muscle, it can atrophy if not used. It's not clear, however, how mental activity protects the brain, he noted.

Still, "a healthy lifestyle, an active lifestyle, a lifestyle filled with activities that utilize the brain are important to keep the brain functioning for as long a period of time as you can," Strange added.

For the study, Ryan and her colleagues collected data on more than 10,300 men and women with a median age of 74 (half younger, half older), who took part in the ASPREE Longitudinal Study of Older Persons. All were in relatively good health. From March 2010 through November 2020, the researchers looked at the participants' lifestyles and who developed dementia.

The report was published online July 14 in JAMA Network Open.

More information

For more on keeping your brain healthy, head to the Alzheimer's Association.

SOURCES: Joanne Ryan, PhD, head, biological neuropsychiatry and dementia unit, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia; Theodore Strange, MD, chairman, medicine, gerontologist, Staten Island University Hospital, New York City; JAMA Network Open, July 14, 2023, online

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