Preventing Dementia: Mental stimulation

Stimulating activities

A 5-year study1 involving 488 people age 75 to 85 found that, for the 101 people who developed dementia, the greater the number of stimulating activities (reading, writing, doing crossword puzzles, playing board or card games, having group discussions, and playing music) they engaged in, the longer rapid memory loss was delayed. Similarly, a study2 involving 1321 randomly selected people aged 70 to 89, of whom 197 had mild cognitive impairment, has found that reading books, playing games, participating in computer activities or doing craft activities such as pottery or quilting was associated with a 30 to 50% decrease in the risk of developing memory loss compared to people who did not do those activities.

Moreover, two activities during middle age (50-65) were also significantly associated with a reduced chance of later memory loss: participation in social activities and reading magazines. The value of social activities is consistent with another, small, study3 that found that social networks, like education, offers a 'protective reserve' capacity that spares individuals the clinical manifestations of Alzheimer's disease. As the size of the social network increased, the same amount of Alzheimer’s pathology in the brain had less effect on cognitive test scores. For those without much pathology (plaques and tangles), social network size had little effect on cognition.

This supports another study4 involving 469 people aged 75 and older, that found that those who participated at least twice weekly in reading, playing games (chess, checkers, backgammon or cards), playing musical instruments, and dancing were significantly less likely to develop dementia. Although the evidence on crossword puzzles was not quite statistically significant, those who did crossword puzzles four days a week had a much lower risk of dementia than those who did one puzzle a week.

Similarly, a study5 of 700 seniors found that more frequent participation in cognitively stimulating activities, such as reading books, newspapers or magazines, engaging in crosswords or card games, was significantly associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease. On average, compared with someone with the lowest activity level, the risk of disease was 47% lower for those whose frequency of activity was highest.

In the first comprehensive review6 of the research into 'cognitive reserve', which looks at the role of education, occupational complexity and mentally stimulating activities in preventing cognitive decline, researchers concluded that complex mental activity across people’s lives almost halves the risk of dementia. All the studies also agreed that it was never too late to build cognitive reserve. The review covered 29,000 individuals across 22 studies.

A review7 of research on the impact of cognitive training on the healthy elderly (not those with mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer's disease), has found no evidence that structured cognitive intervention programs affects the progression of dementia in the healthy elderly population.

Post-mortem analysis of participants in a large, long-running study8 has provided more support for the idea that mental stimulation protects against Alzheimer’s. The study found a cognitively active person in old age was 2.6 times less likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s disease than a cognitively inactive person in old age. This association remained after controlling for past cognitive activity, lifetime socioeconomic status, and current social and physical activity. Frequent cognitive activity during old age was also associated with reduced risk of mild cognitive impairment.

Research involving genetically engineered mice9 has found that mice whose brains had lost a large number of neurons regained long-term memories and the ability to learn after their surroundings were enriched with toys and other sensory stimuli, pointing to the importance of maintaining cognitive stimulation as long as possible. Similarly, another mouse study10 found that short but repeated learning sessions can slow the development of those hallmarks of Alzheimer's, beta amyloid plaques and tau tangles. And another11 found that an enriched environment, with more opportunities to exercise, explore and interact with others, dramatically reduces levels of beta-amyloid peptides.

Education & iq

A study12 involving some 6,500 older Chicago residents being interviewed 3-yearly for up to 14 years (average 6.5 years), has found that while at the beginning of the study, those with more education had better memory and thinking skills than those with less education, education was not related to how rapidly these skills declined during the course of the study. The result suggests that the benefit of more education in reducing dementia risk results simply from the difference in level of cognitive function.

Another study13 has come out supporting the view that people with more education and more mentally demanding occupations may have protection against the memory loss that precedes Alzheimer's disease, providing more evidence for the idea of cognitive reserve. The 14-month study followed 242 people with Alzheimer's disease, 72 people with mild cognitive impairment, and 144 people with no memory problems.

Another study14 has come out confirming that people with more years of education begin to lose their memory later than those with less education, but decline faster once it begins. Researchers note that since the participants were born between 1894 and 1908, their life experiences and education may not represent that of people entering the study age range today.

A study15 of 312 New Yorkers aged 65 and older, who were diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and monitored for over 5 years, found that overall mental agility declined faster for each additional year of education, particularly in the speed of thought processes and memory, and was independent of age, mental ability at diagnosis, or other factors likely to affect brain function, such as depression and vascular disease. It’s suggested this may reflect the greater ability of brains with a higher cognitive reserve to tolerate damage, meaning the damage is greater by the time it becomes observable in behavior.

The Nun Study16 found that nuns who completed 16 or more years of formal education or whose head circumference was in the upper two-thirds were four times less likely to be demented than those with both smaller head circumferences and lower education.

Post-mortem study17 of the brains of 130 participants in the Religious Orders Study found that the relationship between cognitive performance and the number of amyloid plaques in the brain changed with level of formal education. The more years education you had, the less effect the same number of plaques had on actual cognitive performance. It’s worth noting that this considerable difference was observed in a population where even the least educated had some college attendance; presumably the difference would be even more marked in the general population.

A long-running Finnish study18 has found that compared with people with five or less years of education, those with six to eight years had a 40% lower risk of developing dementia and those with nine or more years had an 80% lower risk. Generally speaking, people with low education levels seemed to lead unhealthier lifestyles, but the association remained after lifestyle choices and characteristics such as income, occupation, physical activity and smoking had been taken into account.

An analysis of high school records and yearbooks from the mid-1940s19, and interviews with some 400 of these graduates, now in their 70s, and their family members, has found that those who were more active in high school and who had higher IQ scores, were less likely to have mild memory and thinking problems and dementia as older adults.

An analysis20 of 184 people with dementia found that the mean age of onset of dementia symptoms in the 91 monolingual patients was 71.4 years, while for the 93 bilingual patients it was 75.5 years — a very significant difference.

A study21 of 122 people with Alzheimer's and 235 people without the disease found that people with Alzheimer's are more likely to have had less mentally stimulating careers than their peers who do not have Alzheimer's.


A study22 of 173 people from the Scottish Mental Survey of 1932 who have developed dementia has found that, compared to matched controls, those with vascular dementia were 40% more likely to have low IQ scores when they were children than the people who did not develop dementia. This difference was not true for those with Alzheimer's disease. The findings suggest that low childhood IQ may act as a risk factor for vascular dementia through vascular risks rather than the "cognitive reserve" theory. 


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