It’s never too early to start protecting your brain power, a new study suggests.
Reading, writing and participating in other brain-stimulating activities at any age may protect your memory later in life, according to the research. The study, which tracked 294 individuals, is published online in the July 3 issue of Neurology.
“Our study suggests that exercising your brain by taking part in activities such as these across a person’s lifetime, from childhood through old age, is important for brain health in old age,” said the study’s lead author, Robert Wilson.
After adjusting for signs of brain disease, higher levels of cognitive activity across the life span were associated with slower cognitive decline, the study found. Mental activity explained about 14% of the differences between people in how much their memory and thinking skills declined.
The finding supports the hypothesis of cognitive reserve, which describes the brain’s ability to cope with disease or damage. According to the hypothesis, mental activity helps delay the cognitive consequences of disease.
Neuroimaging research suggests that cognitive activity can lead to changes in brain structure and function that may enhance cognitive reserve.
“An intellectually stimulating lifestyle helps to contribute to cognitive reserve and allows you to tolerate these age-related brain pathologies better than someone who has had a less cognitively active lifestyle,” says Wilson, a neuropsychologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
He recommends that people have cognitively stimulating hobbies that they enjoy, such as photography and quilting.
Intellectually stimulating activities involve processing and using information. Examples are reading a book and then predicting what will happen next, as well as watching a movie and then comparing it with other films, says Judy Willis, a neurologist based in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Willis says doing a variety of cognitive activities appears to be more protective of the cognitive reserve than focusing on one thing, even something like playing chess. “More research is needed to look at how much time should be devoted to an activity or learning a skill and how often it should be revisited,” she adds.
Willis, who was not involved in the study, agrees that the activities should be motivated by pleasure. “Forcing yourself to do something takes a lot of mental effort,” she adds. “If you try something and don’t like it, try something else.”