Mental work out to stave of dementia

22 February 2009


Researchers use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to reveal brain activity during emotional situations. Image credit: Inge Volman et al.


Scientists quizzing elderly people have shown that a mental work out does for you brain what a jog does for the heart.

BrainMayo Clinic neuropsychiatrist and study author Yonas Geda and his colleagues studied over 1300 individuals aged 70-89, about 200 of whom were showing signs of memory impairment; the rest were healthy.  The researchers asked the subjects about their daily activities within the past year, in middle age and when they were 50-65 years old.  The results showed that people with the most robust histories of mental training had reduced risks of memory problems in later life.  Reading and participating in games was associated with a 30-50% reduction in risk, and socialising regularly also reduced the risk of memory problems by 40%.  Watching too much television also turned out to be a risky pass-time (no surprises there, then), with individuals soaking up more than seven hours telly time a day having being twice as likely to develop a memory deficit.

'This study is exciting because it demonstrates that ageing does not need to be a passive process,' says Geda. 'By simply engaging in cognitive exercise, you can protect yourself against future memory loss.'

However, one does wonder whether it's really cause or effect.  Do individuals who are intellectually more able and hence cognitively more active earlier in life have more brain power to start with and hence don't manifest symptoms so soon.  'Indeed, the next step,' says Geda, 'is to do a prospective study.  We already know the habits of these people in our study - how much they read, the amount of television they watch.  Now we'll follow them up over time to see who will develop cognitive impairment, to see if the results hold.'


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