Bookworms Rejoice — And Keep Your Marbles

Cognitive decline slowed in those engaged in cognitive activities throughout their lives

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) If you're looking for the perfect gift for your grandparents, try a crossword puzzle book. And while you're at the store, buy yourself a book too. You may thank yourself later.

A recent study has found that engaging in cognitive activities throughout one's life was linked to slower cognitive decline.

In other words, the more you use your brain in childhood, middle age and old age, the more of your brain sticks with you to the end.

Even if parts of your brain physically deteriorate, activities like reading, puzzles, seeking information and visiting the library may help slow down cognitive decline.

"Read books. Do puzzles. Use your brain."

The study, led by Robert S. Wilson, PhD, of the Department of Neurological Sciences at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, looked for any links between cognitive activities throughout one's life and a person's risk of cognitive decline.

The researchers followed 294 adults, aged 55 and older, for an average of nearly six years, up until their deaths at an average age of 89.

Just over a third of the participants (37 percent) had mild cognitive impairment when the study began. The participants as a group had an average of 14.4 years of education.

During the study, the adults underwent neurological assessments and assessments of their brain function. These assessments involved 19 tests each year related to memory, thinking speed and visual/spatial ability.

At the start of the study, the participants had answered questions about their cognitive activities both currently and in their early lives.

They were asked if they engaged in any one of 37 cognitive activities and how frequently, ranging from "every day or about every day" to "once a year or less."

The items on the questionnaire included reading books, visiting a library, writing letters and other common activities that involved seeking or processing information.

After each participant died, their brain was examined for a number of markers related to cognitive decline, including plaques that can be found in different parts of the brain in those with dementia.

The researchers analyzed all these findings, also taking into account the participants' age at death, sex and educational level.

The analysis revealed that participants who engaged more frequently in cognitive activities both late in life and in their early lives tended to have a slower cognitive decline as shown in the assessments.

In fact, the researchers found that participants' cognitive activities in early and late life accounted for 14 percent of the variation in cognitive decline differences among the participants, even when taking into account physical signs of decline in the brain.

In other words, even if a person's brain showed evidence of the physical characteristics that contribute to dementia, the participants who had engaged in more cognitive activities appeared able to somewhat offset the effects of the brain deterioration, the authors suggested.

Engaging in cognitive activities during childhood, middle age and older age (but not young adulthood) all appeared linked to slower cognitive decline in old age.

"More frequent cognitive activity across the life span has an association with slower late-life cognitive decline that is independent of common neuropathologic conditions," the authors wrote.

Cognitive activities could include reading, visiting a museum, visiting a library, seeking information online, doing crossword puzzles, using maps, playing games like Trivial Pursuit and engaging in lively, conversational discussions that require critical thinking.

This study was published July 3 in the journal Neurology.

The research was funded by the National Institute on Aging and the Illinois Department of Public Health.

One author has consulted for Pain Therapeutics, Inc. Another author serves on the editorial board of Neurology, has received research funding from Danone Inc. and has consulted for Schering-Plough Corp., Medivation, Inc. and the Gerson Lehrman Group.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
July 3, 2013
Last Updated:
July 30, 2013