This week, JAMA Neurology offered an encouraging study for our aging population which demonstrated that continuing to stimulate your brain through intellectually challenging work or leisure activities (such as playing a musical instrument, using a computer or reading) can postpone the onset of dementia. The investigators utilized nearly 2000 participants in the Mayo Clinic Study of Aging, specifically enrolling people aged 70-89 years old, and identifying whether or not they had APOE (a genetic marker linked with increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease) and assessing their baseline cognitive performance.
People who had less mentally challenging occupations, less late-life intellectual stimulation and/or weaker educational backgrounds scored lower on the baseline cognitive assessment. Those people with more advanced degrees or continued late-life education scored higher, creating the anticipated advantage of “cognitive reserve”- in other words, they start with more brain power, so they can afford to lose more brain function before dementia is diagnosed. (For the visually-minded, imagine that dementia is diagnosed when the elevator gets below the 10th floor. If you are starting at the 21st floor, you get there much later than someone who’s elevator started at the 11th floor.)
The surprising good news from this study is that regardless of your baseline brain power, life vocation or genetic predisposition for Alzheimer’s disease, everyone’s memory power benefits from intellectual stimulation after age 40. In fact, this study showed that the intellectually stimulated people postponed the onset of dementia beyond 7 years compared to their peers who did not mentally push themselves.
Of note, there were observed positive snowballs- the more education a person has on the front end, the more likely he or she is to continue a lifetime of intellectual stimulation.
Does it matter what type of intellectual stimulation? We don’t know for certain, but psychologists will be the first to tell you to pick what you ENJOY, because you are far more likely to keep it up. Remember that what you enjoy may or may NOT be what your aging friend or parent enjoys…so whether it is learning to knit, playing the piano, learning a new language or even learning how to text on an iPad- push yourself to learn something that sounds interesting to YOU.
Special kudos to my amazing mother-in-law, Bene, for not only continuing to reading medical articles long beyond her nursing career, but for her constant willingness to learn anything! She texts faster than most adults (with far fewer spelling errors than the rest of us), and even learned to add emoji’s last month. Pictured above is the two of us taking a “selfie” from her iPad.
BOTTOM LINE: Until we have a cure for Alzheimer’s on the treatment end, the “ounce” of prevention we all need is to STIMULATE our brains…and never stop!