Keeping your brain active may delay dementia by five years – study

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Keeping your brain active may delay Alzheimer’s dementia by five years – study (Yui Mok/PA) (PA Wire)
Keeping your brain active may delay Alzheimer’s dementia by five years – study (Yui Mok/PA) (PA Wire)

Reading, writing letters and playing card games or puzzles in later life may delay the onset of Alzheimer’s dementia by up to five years, new research suggests.

The study indicates that it may be beneficial for people to start doing these activities even in their 80s.

It found that people who engaged in more cognitively stimulating activities were potentially delaying the age at which they develop dementia.

The good news is that it's never too late to start doing the kinds of inexpensive, accessible activities we looked at in our study

Professor Robert Wilson

Robert Wilson, of Rush University Medical Centre in Chicago said: “The good news is that it’s never too late to start doing the kinds of inexpensive, accessible activities we looked at in our study.

“Our findings suggest it may be beneficial to start doing these things, even in your 80s, to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s dementia.”

The study looked at 1,978 people with an average age of 80 who did not have dementia at the start of the study, and followed them up for an average of seven years.

Participants were given annual examinations, which included a number of cognitive tests, to determine if they had developed dementia.

At the start of the study people rated their participation in seven activities on a five-point scale.

The questions included: “During the past year, how often did you read books?” and “During the past year, how often did you play games like checkers, board games, cards or puzzles?”

People with the highest levels of activity developed dementia at age 94 on average(Joe Giddens/PA) (PA Archive)
People with the highest levels of activity developed dementia at age 94 on average(Joe Giddens/PA) (PA Archive)

Questions about cognitive activity in childhood, adulthood and middle age were also answered by the participants.

The researchers then averaged each person’s responses, with a score of one meaning once a year or less and a score of five meaning every day or almost every day.

Those in the group with high cognitive activity scored an average of 4.0 which meant activities several times per week, compared to an average score of 2.1 for those with low cognitive activity, which meant activities several times per year.

During the study follow-up period, 457 people with an average age of 89 were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s dementia.

People with the highest levels of activity, on average, developed dementia at age 94.

While those with the lowest cognitive activity, on average, developed dementia at age 89, a difference of five years.

Similar results were seen when the researchers adjusted for other factors that could affect dementia risk, such as education level and sex.

Our research suggests that the link between cognitive activity and the age at which a person developed dementia is mainly driven by the activities you do later in life

Professor Robert Wilson

To test the idea that low cognitive activity may be an early sign of dementia, not the other way around, researchers also looked at the brains of 695 people who died during the study.

Brain tissue was examined for markers of Alzheimer’s like amyloid and tau protein deposits.

There was no association between how active they were cognitively and markers of Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders in their brains.

Prof Wilson said: “Our study shows that people who engage in more cognitively stimulating activities may be delaying the age at which they develop dementia.

“It is important to note, after we accounted for late life level of cognitive activity, neither education nor early life cognitive activity were associated with the age at which a person developed Alzheimer’s dementia.

“Our research suggests that the link between cognitive activity and the age at which a person developed dementia is mainly driven by the activities you do later in life.”

One limitation of the study, published in the Neurology journal, is that it was based on a group of mainly white people who had high levels of education.

Further research is needed to determine if the findings apply to the general population.

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