Your brain needs exercise just like your body, according to a new study that finds that keeping your brain active and sharp during your teen and adult years will mitigate mental decline as you grow older. In fact, even if you’re experiencing the preliminary signs of dementia, brain exercise can still reduce mental decline. Preliminary signs include having trouble solving problems, forgetting things that were recently learned, trouble completing familiar tasks and poor judgement, especially with money.
The researchers behind the study found that about 33% of mental decline experienced later in life can be attributed to physical damage to the brain, such as happens with a stroke or the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. However, they also found that about 10% of old-age cognitive decline is directly dependent on the level of brain activity that person engaged in earlier in life.
Mental Exercise has Huge Impact on Cognitive Decline
During the study conducted at Rush University in Chicago, neuropsychologist Robert Wilson and a team of researchers examined mental test results and samples of brain tissue from 294 elderly adults, all of whom passed away during the course of the trial at an average age of 89. Each participant had been followed for approximately 6 years, during which they regularly completed tests designed to measure memory and mental activity.
In addition to these tests, the participants filled out surveys to gather information about the types of cognitive activities they engaged in earlier in life, with questions like:
- Did you play chess or other similar games?
- How frequently did you read?
- Were you read to as a young child?
- Did you write frequently?
- Did you visit museums, theaters and other similar places?
Even when the researchers accounted for discrepancies in educational levels and physical brain defects such as amyloid beta plaques (a physical marker of Alzheimer’s), they found that subjects who exercised their brains most earlier in life had significantly better mental functioning than those who did so to a lesser extent.
Specifically, in comparison to the average participant in the study, those with the most prior brain activity had 33% less mental decline, while those with the least prior brain activity had 50% more mental decline.
Brain Training: A “Cure” for Dementia?
The medical field is divided between those who believe that brain abnormalities such as protein plaques are the sole cause of mental decline, and those who believe that mental decline, and the accumulated protein plaques that always seem to come with it, could be at least partially prevented through active brain exercise. The new study from Rush University lends credence to the second theory, and even suggests that mental exercise could help to protect you from dementia.
However, the experts agree that no amount of brain training will guarantee that you won’t develop dementia, nor could any level of brain training “cure” dementia. According to Wilson, some peoples’ brains are more predisposed to dementia than others, and for those with the highest levels of predisposition, it’s unlikely that any amount of prior brain activity could stave off dementia forever.
In the future, the researchers hope to conduct similar studies, ideally with a larger subject pool, to dig deeper into how brain activity earlier in life influences physical changes in the brain later in life.
The Bottom Line
Keeping your brain active, stimulated and challenged early in your life could greatly improve your chances of having a healthy, cognitive brain in your golden years, according to a new study by researchers in Chicago.
The full text of the study is available online in the scientific journal Neurology.