An idle mind is the devil’s workshop. Maybe not the devil’s, but it can give you a greater chance at developing dementia. A study published in Neurology followed almost 300 elderly people, half of whom developed dementia, for over six years. The participants reported how often they engaged in mentally stimulating situations throughout their life (i.e. extracurricular school activities, reading books, writing letters, exploring libraries, etc.). By studying the participants’ brain autopsies, scientists discovered a 14% variable in mental decline that can be attributed by the amount of their intellectual activity they participated in throughout their life. Researchers adjusted for brain changes caused by Alzheimer’s, stroke, and Parkinson’s disease saying these factors cause a one third difference in people’s cognitive decline before death. Intellectual stimulation counts for nearly half as much as these diseases.
Those most active late in life declined 32% slower than those who maintained an average level of mental activity while those who were least active fell 48% faster into dementia. “The beauty of this study is that they tested people at different points and followed them [through to] autopsy. People need to know this and be aware that it is possible to slow down the decline of dementia,” says Prashanthis Vemuri, an Alzheimer’s researcher at the Mayo Clinic.
What can you do to help the decline of dementia? “Anything having to do with reading and writing counts in spades,” says Robert Wilson, senior neuropsychologist at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Rush University. How early does this activity need to start? It isn’t clear. Older studies say childhood intelligence can play a part in later-life cognitive activity, but they don’t know if that just increases the act of wanting to be mentally stimulated or whether there is a greater effect.
What will you start going to keep your brain active and healthy?