By Mark Waghorn
Doing crosswords, puzzles or joining an education class protects older people against Alzheimer’s, according to new research.
Simple activities that require mental skills boost the brain by improving ‘cognitive reserve’, say scientists.
They also include using a computer, writing letters and playing cards or chess.
Corresponding author Professor Joanne Ryan, of Monash University in Australia, said: “These results suggest that engagement in adult literacy, creative art and active and passive mental activities may help reduce dementia risk in late life.
“In addition, these findings may guide policies for geriatric care and interventions targeting dementia prevention for older adults.”
Courses are no longer confined just to evenings with many taking place during the day in schools and colleges and even online – ranging from languages to family history.
Known as “adult literacy,” they reduced dementia risk by 11 percent. Playing intelligence testing games cut rates by nine percent.
Meanwhile, there was a seven percent drop in those who engaged in painting, drawing or other manual artistic hobbies.
Reading books, newspapers or magazines, watching TV and listening to music or the radio achieved similar benefits.
The findings were based on more than 10,000 over 70s in Australia tracked for more than a decade. They applied equally to men and women regardless of early education and socioeconomic status.
Ryan said: “In this study, adult literacy and active mental activities showed the largest associations with reduced risk of dementia, possibly reflecting greater cognitive stimulation.
“These activities involve proactive engagement, critical thinking, logical reasoning, and social interaction.”
The cognitive stimulation from such activities can increasing numbers of neurons and connections between them – leading to more efficient brain networks.
Ryan said: “Adult literacy comprises class attendance, computer usage and writing – all of which require the processing and storage of new information, which decelerates neurobiological aging and protects against dementia.
“Older individuals who are highly engaged in adult learning may be more likely to use computers and compose written works as a means to fulfill the learning tasks.
“Writing is a complex process of information output transferring thoughts into texts and using most cognitive abilities.”
Playing games, cards or chess is generally done with others improving social interactions component. They are competitive in nature and involve complex strategies and problem-solving.
Ryan went on: “They use a variety of cognitive domains, including episodic memory, visuospatial skills, calculation, executive function, attention and concentration.
“Crossword puzzles may also utilize language skills and semantic memory that help solve verbal and linguistic problems using pre-existing knowledge.”
The study in JAMA Network Open could lead to the development of specific cognitive training programs. The number of dementia cases worldwide will triple to more than 150 million by 2050.
With no cure in sight, there is an increasing focus on lifestyle interventions that can stop or slow the progression of the disease.
Ryan said: “No current treatment approach for dementia has been shown to be completely effective. Therefore, identifying new strategies to prevent or delay dementia onset among older individuals is a priority.”
Cognitive reserve is the brain’s resistance to age-related damage. Friendships, social activities and outings were not associated with dementia – which surprised the researchers.
This may have been due to just a small proportion of the cohort feeling lonely or isolated, said Ryan.
She added: “It is plausible the current participants who all remained cognitively intact into later life have already built cognitive reserve to some extent via prior life experiences.
“Thus, it may be reasonable to tailor the strategies of cognitive aging according to social engagement and health status to maximize the use of health resources.”
Produced in association with SWNS Talker