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Play Games For a Healthier Brain

Mental activities help preserve the structural integrity of older brains, scientists say.

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Chess set-- by Suzanne Boothby

The Gist

The idea of “use it or lose it” applies to specific parts of your brain, according to new research. In a study being presented today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA), researchers found that activities like reading, writing, and playing games help protect the brain’s white matter—the nerve fibers that transmit information throughout it—as you age.

“Reading the newspaper, writing letters, visiting a library, attending a play, or playing games, such as chess or checkers, are all simple activities that can contribute to a healthier brain,” said lead author Konstantinos Arfanakis, Ph.D.

Previous research has shown a link with late-life mental activity keeping the brain sharp, but this new study targets the white matter of the brain, which makes up about half of brain volume. The white matter contains nerve fibers known as axons that are surrounded by fat called myelin, which gives it a white color. Myelin acts like an insulator increasing the speed of transmission for all nerve signals. Typically, white matter activity decreases with aging, injury, or disease.

The Expert Take

Research found that keeping the brain engaged throughout your life has a big impact.

"Keeping the brain occupied late in life has positive outcomes," Arfanakis said. “Several areas throughout the brain, including regions quite important to cognition, showed higher microstructural integrity with more frequent cognitive activity in late life.”

Your brain is like a muscle, according to Joseph Verghese, M.D., a geriatrician and member of the American Geriatrics Society.

“All of us, seniors especially, need to exercise our brains—and bodies—on a regular basis to stay in good mental and physical shape,” Verghese said.

Source and Method

The study by Arfanakis and colleagues from Rush University Medical Center and Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago included more than 150 participants from the Rush Memory and Aging Project, a large-scale study looking at risk factors for Alzheimer's disease.

Researchers asked the participants to rate on a scale of 1 to 5 the frequency with which they participated in a list of mentally engaging activities during the last year. Among the activities were reading newspapers and magazines, writing letters, and playing cards and board games.

The researchers used a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) method known as diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to measure how water molecules move through the brain. They collected anatomical and DTI data and used it to generate diffusion anisotropy maps. Data analysis revealed significant associations between the frequency of cognitive activity in later life and higher diffusion anisotropy values in the brain.

The Takeaway

Research continues to tout the benefits of keeping an active mind later in life.

“We've shown an association between late-life cognitive activity and structural integrity, but we haven't shown that one causes the other," Arfanakis said. “We want to follow the same patients over time to demonstrate a causal link.”

Other Research

A 2012 study found that leisure activities might protect against mental decline for both men and women.

Research published in the August 2012 Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience looked at white matter as it relates to brain function and found that you can “teach an old dog new tricks,” or continue to learn as you age.

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Tags: Awareness , Latest Studies & Research

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The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.

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