Research shows that people who engage in more activities that stimulate the mind have sharper cognitive functioning as they age than people who do not challenge their brains. In fact, intellectual pursuits not only prevent a gradual decline in mental ability, they may also provide some protection against diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
Activities that are known to be beneficial include taking courses, reading, playing social games such as cards or chess, cultural visits and volunteering. Research has also shown that people who take part in more social activities tend to have sharper minds than those who pursue more solitary pursuits such as gardening and household tasks.
All of this supports the ‘use it or lose it’ theory of mental ability, which treats the mind in much the same way we treat our muscles. If we don’t use it regularly, it will deteriorate.
Some argue that research such as this could be flawed because those with sharper minds may be more likely to engage in complex intellectual activities in the first place.
New research suggests the type of work a person does can have a protective effect against mental decline: one study found those whose work history required more speaking, strategy development, conflict resolution and managerial tasks had better protection against memory and thinking decline as they aged.
However, many studies have controlled for the influence of education and profession. Both education and occupation are two factors that are strongly related to intellectual ability. The results show that mentally challenging activities seem to keep the mind sharp independently of education and occupation.
Research shows that the brain continues responding to new challenges well into old age. In fact, while it was once thought that brain cells only grew during youth, it is now known that brain cells continue growing and changing throughout life. Challenging the mind results in brain cells growing longer dendrites, which is the part of the nerve cell that receives signals from other cells.
A study on middle-aged rats showed that after just four days of exposure to a stimulating environment, the rats’ brains developed a thickened cerebral cortex, larger nerve cells, longer dendrites and improved nerve synapses. Rats were placed in barren cages experienced some decay of dendrites.
Other ways to protect an aging mind include simple lifestyle choices such as regular physical activity, getting enough sleep and eating a nutritious diet. Research has shown that these basic steps are not only healthy for the body, but also for the mind.
Aerobic exercise seems to be particularly useful for maintaining cognitive functioning. While no conclusive studies have yet been completed in this area, it is known that aerobic exercise sends oxygen-rich blood into the brain, which is the organ that needs the most blood. Also, this kind of exercise is known to increase levels of a chemical in the brain called brain derived neurotrophic factor, which promotes growth of new brain cells and protects them from age-related damage.
It is important not to grow complacent as we age. Our minds still respond to stimulating activity. Not only will it protect us from mental deterioration, but challenging activities often provide satisfaction and contentment as well.
Dr. Latimer is president of Okanagan Clinical Trials and a Kelowna psychiatrist.