A new study lends a scientific basis to the banner that mental engagement is important for maintaining mental acuity.
Researchers discovered the protective effects of an active cognitive lifestyle arise through multiple biological pathways.
In general, researchers have observed that those who are more mentally active or maintain an active cognitive lifestyle throughout their lives are at lower risk of cognitive impairment or dementia.
The observational findings have led researchers to advise individuals, and especially the elderly, that they should exercise or stimulate the brain to maintain mental skills, a “use it or lose it” admonition.
“The ideas of a ‘brain reserve’ or ‘cognitive reserve’ have been suggested to explain this, but were basically a black box. This research throws some light on what may be happening at the biological level,” said Dr. Michael J. Valenzuela, a brain aging expert at the University of Sydney, Australia, who led this new study.
Researchers used data from the Cognitive Function and Ageing Study, a large population-based study in the United Kingdom that has been following over 13,000 elderly individuals prospectively since 1991.
Researchers examined 329 brains that had been donated. Brains were compared based on the individual’s dementia status at death (yes or no) and cognitive lifestyle score, or CLS (low, middle, or high).
Investigators learned that an active cognitive lifestyle can slow or prevent dementia but the three CLS groups did not differ for conditions associated with Alzheimer’s disease (AD).
Alzheimer’s disease is a condition that causes the gradual destruction of brain cells. Brain abnormalities include the presence of plaques, neurofibrillary tangles, and atrophy.
However, an active cognitive lifestyle in men was associated with less cerebrovascular disease, in particular disease of the brain’s microscopic blood vessels.
An active cognitive lifestyle in women was associated with greater brain weight. In both men and women, high CLS was associated with greater neuronal density and cortical thickness in the frontal lobe.
“These findings suggest that increased engagement in stimulating activities are part of a lifestyle that is, overall, more healthy,” commented Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry.
“Rather than specifically protecting the health of activated circuits, it seems that a more active lifestyle has general effects on brain health reflected in greater neuronal density and preservation of the blood supply to the brain.”
“Overall, our research suggests that multiple complex brain changes may be responsible for the ‘use it or lose it’ effect,” Valenzuela added.
Researchers stress that as the world’s population ages, the risk of dementia rises. As such, dementia-prevention strategies are of rising importance.
Learning how mental activity and exercises reduce the risk of dementia is critical for development of tailored strategies to enrich cognitive lifestyle and potentially reduce dementia risk.