Reading articles like this, writing letters to friends, and other day-to-day activities that stimulate the mind can help stave off brain damage in old age, according to a new study.
The research adds to the growing belief that those who use their brains more often are less likely to lose them as they age.
Your Brain: Use It or Lose It
Researchers with the American Academy of Neurology studied 294 seniors, testing their memory and thinking skills every year for six years before they died. Upon death, at an average age of 89, the participants’ brains were studied for physical signs of dementia.
Researchers discovered that those who participated in mentally stimulating activities in childhood and later in life had a slower rate of decline in memory and other cognitive abilities. Stimulating daily activities, such as reading and word game playing, were believed to be responsible for a 48 percent decrease in mental decline among those who participated in them, compared with those who infrequently challenged their brains.
“Our study suggests that exercising your brain by taking part in activities such as these across a person’s lifetime, from childhood through old age, is important for brain health in old age,” study author Robert S. Wilson of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago said in a press release.
The team's research was published last week in the journal Neurology.
Can the Brain Protect Itself From Damage?
As the study authors suggest, brain exercises can help strengthen the mind. Just like any other muscle you exercise, your brain could become tougher and more resilient to damage through regular use.
There’s an emerging theory among neurologists called the "cognitive reserve hypothesis," which essentially states that with regular use, the human mind can form its own protective internal helmet against long-term damage.
In 1988, researchers published a paper in the Annals of Neurology showing that, despite the physical presence of Alzheimer’s disease in their brain tissues, patients with more neurons showed fewer symptoms of the disease during their lifetime.
Further studies, including the latest from the American Academy of Neurology, indicate that higher levels of education and participation in stimulating activities—both physical and mental—have protective effects on the brain, regardless of IQ differences.
Neurologists Dr. Prashanthi Vemuri and Elizabeth C. Mormino addressed the cognitive reserve hypothesis in a recent editorial in Neurology. They wrote that recent research shows the brain’s protective effects may not ward off physical manifestations of dementia and brain loss, but it does show that an active mind can slow the rate of cognitive decline years before death.
“This finding potentially addresses a question that all of us ask from time to time—can we do anything to slow down late-life cognitive decline? The results suggest yes—read more books, write more, and do activities that keep your brain busy irrespective of your age,” Vemuri and Mormino wrote.
They added that more expansive research is needed to understand precisely how the brain protects itself against cognitive loss, even in the face of disease.