Older adults who take part in mentally stimulating activities appear more likely to avoid or delay significant cognitive decline, but the relationship between activity and cognitive health is uncertain. Does mental activity keep the brain healthy, or does inactivity result from underlying problems with the brain? Researchers at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago found that late-life mental activity appears to be related to slower cognitive decline, independent of neurological disorder.
The study participants had been recruited into the Rush Memory and Aging Project, an ongoing longitudinal study of cognitive disorder in older adults. Participants in this study agreed to undergo clinical evaluations each year and to donate their brain for autopsy after their deaths. For this study, researchers analyzed the brain and clinical data of 294 participants within the larger study who did not have dementia at the beginning of their participation in the study, and who had at least one annual follow-up evaluation. At the beginning of the study, participants had been surveyed on their levels of cognitive activity in both early and later life, and had been given annual cognitive tests for the remainder of their lives. At autopsy, participants’ brains were examined for any indications of relevant neuropathology, such as Lewy bodies, amyloid deposits, or signs of stroke.
When adjusting for age at death, sex, education, and brain pathology, mental activity was associated with lower cognitive decline. Participants with high levels of late-life mental activity had about one-third less cognitive decline than those of average activity, while those with low levels of mental activity had an almost 50 percent increase in cognitive decline relative to those with average activity. These findings suggest that engaging in high levels of mentally stimulating activity may indeed be a way to decrease cognitive decline for older adults.