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Physical activity and socializing are two ways older adults can help improve their cognitive function. Uwe Krejci/Getty Images
  • Researchers say physical and mental activity can help improve cognitive function in older adults.
  • They note the improvement is particularly noticeable in women, especially with it comes to memory reserve.
  • Experts recommend older adults adopt lifestyle activities such as walking, reading, socializing, and playing board games to stay mentally sharp.

Numerous studies have shown a link between mental and physical activities and improved cognitive function.

A new study published in the journal Neurology has now taken this one step further.

In the study, researchers report that these activities not only improve cognitive function but might be more beneficial for women.

Researchers looked at the effects of different activities on thinking skills. There were 758 participants with an average age of 76.

The cognitive function of the participants ranged from those having no cognition problems to those diagnosed with dementia.

Each participant had a brain scan and took thinking speed and memory tests. The scientists asked each participant about their level of weekly physical activity, in particular whether they had at least 15 minutes per week of physical activity that elevated their heart rate.

The participants were also asked about mental activity and whether they took part in three types of activities over the prior 13 months:

  • Reading magazines, newspapers, or books
  • Going to classes
  • Playing cards, games, or bingo

Participants were given one point for each activity, to a maximum of three points. Overall, participants had an average of 1.2 points.

In the study, cognitive activities positively affected speed reserve in both men and women. However, they were associated with memory reserve only in women.

“Greater physical activity was associated with greater thinking speed reserve for women, but not in men,” according to Judy Pa, PhD, lead author of the study and an associate professor of neurology and gerontology at the University of Southern California. “Taking part in more mental activities was associated with greater thinking speed reserve for both men and women.”

Neither group received a boost in memory reserve based on physical activity.

The women in the study were generally older and less physically active but had more significant memory reserves. Both men and women had similar reading and card-playing habits, but women attended group activities and classes more frequently.

Based on the size of the effect, the researchers said that doubling physical exercise could result in an estimated 2.75 fewer years of aging for women’s mental processing skills.

“The part of the study that points to women getting a stronger benefit in terms of thinking speed raises more questions than answers. By identifying these associations, the study shed light on the need for more research exploring sex-based differences concerning the impact of lifestyle interventions on brain health and dementia risk,” said Dr. Scott Kaiser, a geriatrician and director of the Geriatric Cognitive Health for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California.

It might not be that women get a much more substantial benefit as they are in better health.

“Men have more genetic factors leading to cognitive decline/dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Men also have higher rates of comorbidities, which can lead to cognitive impairment — hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, smoking/drinking, to name a few,” Dr. Santoshi Billakota, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Neurology at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, told Healthline.

Defining cognitive reserve is essential to understanding the results of the study.

“The authors took brain scans and measured the hippocampus volume, which is an important structure for memory. It often shrinks (atrophies) in degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. Individuals with good memory scores but smaller hippocampi would then be suggested to have higher cognitive reserve than others,” said Dr. Doug Scharre, director of the division of Cognitive Neurology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and the head of medical affairs for BrainTest.com.

Cognitive reserve is “the ability for the brain to understand, process, and improvise to accomplish a task,” Joey Gee, DO, a neurologist with Providence Mission Hospital, told Healthline.

It is a term used to describe how your brain processes and copes with challenges. For example, when you face a challenge, cognitive reserves allow you to find different ways of coping with the challenge. Your reserve is built up over many years. Education, learning, and curiosity all help build up your reserve. A robust reserve can stave off cognitive impairment due to age or dementia.

“Cognitive reserve is not a cure or guarantee that you won’t experience cognitive issues, especially when we consider diseases like dementia,” Dr. Mahmud Kara, a founder of KaraMD, told Healthline. “But, it might help slow the progression of symptoms or reduce the severity of such symptoms.”

Everyone reacts differently to age-related changes that affect memory and cognitive function.

“Cognitive reserve is a potential key to slowing cognitive aging,” Kaiser told Healthline. “It is developed over a lifetime, but certain activities could bolster it, even later in life. In this sense, cognitive reserve is like a ‘rainy day fund’ that may help you weather the storm and a more efficient budget that enables you to buy more with less and assure your needs are met. Or, it is like an accessory fuel tank to help you travel a long distance and an extra gear needed to overcome obstacles along your path, helping you get safely to your destination.”

“The first step is all about getting active and staying active. A body in motion stays in motion,” explained Kaiser. “Having clear goals, an action plan, and developing a routine — including activities that you enjoy and that make you feel good — can go a long way toward creating a beneficial and lasting change.”

Gee told Healthline that older adults can engage in a variety of different activities, such as:

  • Walking five to six miles per week
  • Engaging in various types of computer programs
  • Socializing
  • Playing board games
  • Putting together puzzles
  • Reading
  • Sharing information
  • Participating in art activities, such as coloring books

“Overall, this study highlights some important notions about cognitive-related diseases and prevention,” said Kara. “Rather than be reactive when it comes to treatment, which is the ‘typical norm,’ people should focus on prevention and education, which are key to reducing instances of disease.”

“Imagine a world where more people are informed about how their decisions and lifestyle habits early on in life impact their health,” Kara added. “For example, suppose more people were aware that physical and mental activities might improve cognitive skills and even reduce the risk for cognitive decline, as the study suggests. In that case, it may significantly reduce the instances of disease.”