As baby boomers age, the push to sell products that theoretically help individuals maintain their cognitive ability has become widespread.
But do the products work, or are we mindfully chasing a panacea presented as a placebo?
To clarify, the National Institute on Aging funded a comprehensive review of cognitive enrichment activities and discovered evidence that including intellectually stimulating pursuits, social engagement, and especially physical exercise may indeed preserve or enhance various aspects of cognitive functioning as we age.
In this report, the researchers point to recent studies confirming that engaging in intellectually stimulating pursuits have substantial benefits for older adults. One such study shows that everyday activities, such as reading, can indeed help.
Four thousand old people were recruited for a study and rated their frequency of participation in seven cognitive activities (e.g., reading magazines). The researchers conducted in-home interviews and tested the participants’ cognitive function for nearly 6 years. Those who engaged in more frequent cognitive activity experienced a reduced rate of cognitive decline.
Your brain also stays in better shape if you work out. The authors of this report point to a recent study looking at 5,925 women over the age of 65. Researchers assessed their physical activity by asking the women how many city blocks they walked per day and how many flights of stairs they climbed daily.
The women also responded to a questionnaire detailing their participation in 33 different physical activities. Looking at the cognitive function of these women 6 to 8 years later, the researchers found that the most active women had a 30 percent reduced risk of cognitive decline.
Interestingly, walking distance was associated with cognition, but walking speed was not. It seems that even moderate levels of physical activity can serve to limit declines in cognition in older adults.
Social engagement and maintaining a positive attitude are also powerful tools in deterring the arrival of dementia. Individuals who are optimistic, agreeable, open to experience, conscientious, positively motivated and goal-directed are more likely to experience successful aging. Animal research supports these findings.
These studies show that exposing animals to enriched or complex environments (usually including running wheels, a multitude of toys and objects to climb, and animal companions) yields several physiological benefits, including neuronal changes in the brain.
The science in this report also debunks the old saw: “Old dogs can’t learn new tricks.” While older adults generally learn new pursuits more slowly than younger people do, they nevertheless can improve their cognitive performance by keeping their minds and bodies in shape.
Psychological Science in the Public Interest is a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. This monograph was supported by a grant from the National Institute on Aging.