We all want to keep our minds sharp and our memories strong as we get older. So, what can we do right now to prevent cognitive decline in later years? Engaging in regular aerobic exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week, probably has the biggest effect on people of many ages (see here and here). Convincing evidence also suggests that a Mediterranean-style diet of fish, olive oil, avocados, fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, and whole grains is beneficial. But what about social and mental activities — do they help at all?
Social activities, a positive attitude, and learning new things
Previous research convincingly demonstrates that older people who engage in social activities, have a positive mental attitude, and work to learn new things maintain their cognitive abilities longer than those who are socially isolated, have a negative attitude, and do not try to learn new things. However, several questions remain. When is the ideal time to do these activities: in middle age or later in life? Does it help to do multiple activities, or is a single activity as good as several? And what about other common mental activities, such as reading books and playing games — do they help too?
Mentally stimulating activities: More is better
A recently published study from researchers at the Mayo Clinic followed 2,000 cognitively normal men and women age 70 or older for about five years. Participants filled out surveys regarding their engagement in five common mentally stimulating pursuits –– social activities, reading books, playing games, making crafts, and using a computer –– in midlife (between ages 50 and 65) and in late life (ages 70 and above). The researchers also performed face-to-face evaluations every 15 months. These evaluations included a neurologic interview and exam, detailed history of their abilities at home and in the community, and neuropsychological testing for memory, language, visuospatial skills, attention, and executive function.
When the study ended, the researchers looked at whether participants remained cognitively normal or developed mild cognitive impairment (MCI). MCI is diagnosed when a concern about a person’s thinking and memory is confirmed by testing that shows impairment on one or more tests of thinking and memory. However, day-to-day functioning is essentially normal, and the person is not demented.
The study yielded several important findings
- Engaging in two, three, four, or five mentally stimulating activities in late life correlated with a lower risk for developing MCI. A trend suggests a greater number of activities is linked to a greater reduction in risk.
- Three activities — computer use, social activities, and games — had benefits when pursued in both midlife and late life. However, crafts were beneficial only in late life.
- Reading books showed no benefit — a dismaying finding to me as both an author and an avid reader.
The bottom line
If we want to keep our minds sharp and our memories strong, the evidence suggests that there is much we can do today. We can engage in regular aerobic exercise. We can eat a Mediterranean-style diet. We can work to learn new things and keep a positive mental attitude. And lastly, with a nod to this new research, we can pursue social activities, play games, and use computers from midlife onward, and engage in crafts in late life. Books, on the other hand, should be read whenever we are seeking knowledge, wisdom, enlightenment, or enjoyment.