What if you could take actions today that would keep your mind sharp decades into the future, despite harmful physical changes in the brain? Recent research published in the journal Neurology suggests that it’s possible to mitigate the effects of physical brain deterioration with brain-boosting activities.
Many previous studies have suggested a link between cognitively stimulating activities and slower cognitive decline, but the relationship is complex and not one that is easily understood. Some scientists hypothesize that cognitive activity (brain challengers like reading, writing and puzzle solving) helps delay the negative consequences of brain lesions, physical abnormalities, that can be caused by age, injury, or disease.
In an attempt to test this hypothesis, researchers followed 1,651 elderly participants for 15 years, beginning in 1997. Participants were given a questionnaire that asked whether or not they read books, wrote or participated in other brain stimulating activities as a child, adolescent, middle-aged person and at their current age. Participants also took 19 different cognitive tests every year of the study and were regularly examined for neurological disease.
By 2012, 294 of the participants had died and undergone brain autopsies that looked for any physical signs of dementia, such as lesions, brain plaques and tangles. This group, with their long and well-documented cognitive history, allowed researchers to analyze and better understand the relationship between cognitive activity, brain lesions, and cognitive performance.
Out of the 294 participants whose brains were autopsied, 102 had dementia and more than a third had brain abnormalities of varying severity, including those often associated with Alzheimer’s.
After adjusting for differing levels of plaques and tangles in the brain, researchers also found that individuals who participated in mentally stimulating activities in both early and late life showed a slower decline of memory compared to those who did not participate in such activities during their lifetime. Mental activity accounted for about 15 percent of the difference in decline – beyond the percentage that could be explained by plaques and tangles present in the brain.
The study supports the idea of cognitive reserve, or that strengthening your brain throughout life can help it resist damage later. According to this theory, a strong enough neural system can rewire itself in the face of brain damage, relying on “detours” to maintain brain function.