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Staying Active Mentally Helps Protect Your Brain From Dementia

  • Carol Pearson

Because we face a looming global epidemic of dementia, scientists the world over are looking for ways to preserve the memories of older adults.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health project that one out of every 85 older adults worldwide will develop Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia.

With aging on the rise globally, the big question becomes how can people preserve their thinking skills and memory?

Some research shows that staying physically active helps the brain stay healthy, both mentally and physically.

Other studies look at challenging the brain's thought processes: by studying languages, doing Sudoku or crossword puzzles and the like.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, found that mentally stimulating activities help reduce the chance of developing mild dementia, known as MCI, or mild cognitive impairment.

MCI doesn't interfere with everyday life, but those who have are at greater risk for developing Alzheimer's.

Mayo Clinic psychiatrist Dr. Yonas Geda co-authored a study published January 30 in JAMA Neurology. Nearly 2,000 adults without memory issues, aged 70 and older, participated in the study. The research went on for ten years, from 2006 to 2016, but the average participant was followed for four years.

“This study is very important because dementia, MCI, these conditions are really common as we get older," Geda said, "We need to find out non-pharmacological approaches to decrease the risk of MCI or dementia.”

The researchers found that playing games, doing crafts, using a computer and staying socially active could reduce the risk of mild cognitive impairment even for those with a genetic risk for dementia.

The researchers were interested in the research because so far, few studies have investigated whether keeping the mind busy is related to the outcome of MCI, the intermediate zone between normal cognitive aging and dementia.

The results found that only 15 percent of the participants developed MCI over an average of four years, although not all activities were equal.

Those who used a computer and those who participated in crafting activities saw their risk decrease by 30 and 28 percent respectively. Social activity and playing games reduced the risk by 23 and 22 percent.

The researchers found that reading didn’t seem to provide the same protection for thinking and memory.

The mental activity doesn't have to become a chore, Geda said. Just participating in something mentally stimulating two to three times a week helped, and that seemed to be the key. The study showed this group significantly decreased their risk of developing new-onset MCI compared with people who participated in fewer mentally stimulating activities.

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