We all know that being active is essential if you want to stay healthy through your sunset years.
And for some time we’ve also been told that a mentally active lifestyle can help keep our brains healthy as we age. Research has found mental activities such as crosswords, learning a new language and playing cards, are associated with less decline in mental function, as well as a lower risk of dementia as we get older.
(Dementia is the progressive loss of mental functioning that extends beyond that of normal ageing. Its signs include memory loss, disorientation and poor judgment and Alzheimer’s disease is its most well-known form.)
However, a new study has found that people with a more cognitively active lifestyle tend to decline rapidly once they start showing signs of dementia.
This does not mean you should throw away your crossword. Lead researcher Dr Robert Wilson, a neuropsychologist at the Rush University Medical Centre in the United States, is keen to stress that a mentally active lifestyle isn’t dangerous.
“The bottom line is that you spend less of your lifetime in a cognitively disabled state, which I think is what we’re all after,” Wilson says.
The study published in the September edition of Neurology involved more than 1,000 people over 65 who didn’t have dementia at the beginning of the study. Participants were asked to rate how frequently they did certain mental activities and were followed up every three years for an average of 12 years.
Wilson says the health of the brain is “activity dependent”. The theory is that mental activity increases the number of synapses – connections between brain cells – in the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in memory and thinking.
Alzheimer’s disease is associated with the build up of a type of protein called amyloid in the brain. Wilson says mentally active people probably have a more elaborate and robust hippocampus that is more resilient to these plaques and tangles of amyloid.
But the protein still builds up. So while the brains of these mentally active people continue to function normally for longer, they still accumulate damage which results in a faster decline when symptoms do ‘break through’.
Associate Professor Michael Woodward, director of the Aged Care Department at Austin Health in Victoria, puts it this way: “You’ve got two ways of living your life: you can fly at cruising altitude and then suddenly descend or you can spend most of your life slowly descending. I think I’d like to go at cruise altitude.”
But more research is needed to confirm the link, says Woodward.
And until there is more evidence, we won’t know if activity really does shore up the brain against the symptoms of dementia, or whether people in the early stages of dementia simply avoid mental tasks, he says.
Staying mentally active
Even if the evidence isn’t conclusive, it’s good to keep the brain active. In Wilson’s study participants read books, magazines and newspapers; played games; visited museums; listened to the radio and watched television. But you don’t have to do those particular activities – what’s important is that your activities are frequent and prolonged.
Activities that include a social element are also beneficial, so a brain-taxing book club, where you also socialise with people is a good choice.
Woodward says it’s important to maintain variety.
“In the same way you wouldn’t rely on just the exercise bike when you go to the gym; don’t rely on just sudokus if you want to keep your brain active.”
But ‘brain training’ computer games are not the answer. These games may claim to make you smarter and stave off dementia, but research suggests these games are no better at improving your cognition than simply seeking out obscure information on the internet.
You probably want to start your habit of mental activity early in life, although Wilson admits that some of his previous research suggests that whatever you are doing at the time is most important.
“So even if you’ve been a [mental] couch potato your whole life, it’s never too late to start,” he says.
But the truth is, if you’re really looking for the best exercise to reduce your dementia risk then you need to do physical exercise, possibly because it increases blood flow to the brain. In fact, physical exercise is now being tested to see whether it improves brain function in people who already have Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s Australia recommends seven ‘signposts’ that might help reduce your risk of dementia. These include doing regular mental and physical activities as well as:
- Watching your diet: reducing saturated fats and eating a wide variety of fresh fruit and vegetables.
- Having regular health checks: having your blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and weight checked is important for your general health and your brain health.
- Maintaining an active social life: being involved in social activities can help to keep you engaged.
- Avoiding bad habits: smoking, drinking too much alcohol and not getting enough rest can all affect your health.
- Avoiding head injuries: wear seat belts when driving and protective head gear when necessary.