The benefits of keeping the brain busy as we get older seem self-evident. Keeping the gray matter ticking is just as important as stretching the limbs and flexing the joints. Doctors have always been keen to advocate a few mental gymnastics to keep the cerebrum supple. Newly published research seems to very much back up that idea, arguing that creativity and company are the keys to perspicacity.
People who enjoy arts and crafts and who socialize more in middle and old age may delay the development in very old age of the cognitive problems that can lead to dementia, according to a new study published in the April 8 online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
The scientists studied 256 people who had an average age of 87 and no pre-existing problems with memory or mental processing. They were asked about their involvement with arts — hobbies such as painting, drawing and sculpting; crafts, like woodworking, pottery, ceramics, quilting, quilling and sewing; social activities, such as going to the theater, movies, concerts, socializing with friends, book clubs, literary study and travel; and computer activities such as using the Internet, playing computer games, conducting Web searches and making online purchases.
After an average of four years, 121 people involved in the study developed what is known as Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). It was discovered that those who practiced art hobbies in both middle and old age were 73 percent less likely to develop such problems than those who did not, while those who crafted in middle and old age were 45 percent less likely to experience these issues. In addition, people who socialized in middle and old age were 55 percent less likely to develop MCI compared to those who did not engage in like activities. Regular computer use in later life was associated with a 53 percent reduced risk of MCI.
Study author Dr. Rosebud Roberts, a member of the American Academy of Neurology argues that "as millions of older U.S. adults are reaching the age where they may experience these memory and thinking problem[s]…it is important we look to find lifestyle changes that may stave off the condition." "Our study," she says, "supports the idea that engaging the mind may protect neurons, or the building blocks of the brain, from dying, stimulate growth of new neurons, or may help recruit new neurons to maintain cognitive activities in old age." Figures show that people age 85 and older make up the fastest growing age group both in the United States and worldwide.
Roberts conducts research using a group of men and women ages 50 and older who were randomly selected from the Olmsted County, Minnesota, population to participate in the Mayo Clinic Study of Aging. One of the main focuses of her work is attempting to identify factors that will promote healthy aging. Dementia, she maintains, is an important disease of aging and there is currently no cure.
The best way to resist the influence of dementia is to focus on prevention. Identifying risk factors for MCI — an "intermediate stage in the progression from normal aging to dementia" — becomes, in this sense, essential in the effort to help doctors educate their patients about risk factors for MCI or dementia and provide treatment for those at risk. The new research adds to the growing evidence for the need to keep mentally stimulated and backs up the conclusions reached by studies in 2014, 2013 and 2012.
Harvard Health has some great advice for keeping things ticking. They also point out the added effects of physical health on memory. Among other things, diabetes, high blood pressure, poor sleep and depression can all have a negative impact on mental ability. Staying healthy and keeping active are keys, they say, to keeping the gray matter in good shape. Their six tips are a handy way to help yourself stay ahead of the game.
Essentially, they say, it's about staying positive: "people who believe that they are not in control of their memory function…are less likely to work at maintaining or improving their memory skills and therefore are more likely to experience cognitive decline. If you believe you can improve and you translate that belief into practice, you have a better chance of keeping your mind sharp." Maintaining an active social life and developing new, creative skills might just be the way to do that.