New research discovers a key to mental agility in later life begins decades earlier. Specifically, participation in activities that challenge the brain also build resiliency helping the brain better handle changes resulting from age or illness.
Investigators believe early life challenges build a “cognitive reserve” that helps the brain ward off potential insults.
Researchers discovered some examples of activities that challenge the brain during early and mid-life include participation in management or leadership positions, social engagement, and continued education.
The large-scale investigation published in the journal PLOS Medicine and led by the University of Exeter, used data from more than 2,000 mentally fit people over the age of 65.
Investigators found that people with higher levels of reserve are more likely to stay mentally fit for longer, making the brain more resilient to illnesses such as dementia.
The research team included collaborators from the universities of Bangor, Newcastle, and Cambridge.
Linda Clare, Professor of Clinical Psychology of Ageing and Dementia at the University of Exeter, said: “Losing mental ability is not inevitable in later life. We know that we can all take action to increase our chances of maintaining our own mental health, through healthy living and engaging in stimulating activities.
It’s important that we understand how and why this occurs, so we can give people meaningful and effective measures to take control of living full and active lives into older age.
“People who engage in stimulating activity which stretches the brain, challenging it to use different strategies that exercise a variety of networks, have higher ‘Cognitive reserve’.
This builds a buffer in the brain, making it more resilient. It means signs of decline only become evident at a higher threshold of illness or decay than when this buffer is absent.”
The research team analyzed data from 2,315 mentally fit participants aged over 65 years who took part in the first wave of interviews for the Cognitive Function and Ageing Study Wales (CFAS-Wales).
Investigators assessed whether a healthy lifestyle was associated with better performance on a mental ability test. They found that a healthy diet, more physical activity, more social and mentally stimulating activity and moderate alcohol consumption all seemed to boost cognitive performance.
Professor Bob Woods of Bangor University, who leads the CFAS Wales study, said: “We found that people with a healthier lifestyle had better scores on tests of mental ability, and this was partly accounted for by their level of cognitive reserve.
“Our results highlight the important of policies and measures that encourage older people to make changes in their diet, exercise more, and engage in more socially oriented and mentally stimulating activities.”
Professor Fiona Matthews of Newcastle University, who is principal statistician on the CFAS studies, said “Many of the factors found here to be important are not only healthy for our brain, but also help at younger age avoiding heart disease”.
Source: University of Exeter