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Mentally stimulating activities can cut cognitive decline

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

mild cognitive impairment

Story at-a-glance -

  • Engaging in activities that stimulate your brain is one of the simplest ways to keep your mind sharp as you age
  • In a study of 2,000 people aged 70 years or older, researchers issued surveys on the timing, number and frequency of engagement in five mentally stimulating activities
  • Engaging in two activities led to a 28% lower risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) compared to doing none of them
  • Those who engaged in three activities lowered their risk of MCI by 45%, while those who took part in four activities cut their risk by 56%
  • You can take steps to improve the health of your brain and lower your risk of MCI; engaging in mentally stimulating activities is one piece of the puzzle, and you can further bolster your brain health by leading a healthy lifestyle

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a noticeable decline in cognitive abilities that does not yet interfere with most daily functions. In the most common form of MCI, known as amnestic MCI, memory problems may occur more often than in people without the condition, and you may, for example, lose things often, forget appointments or have difficulty coming up with the right word while in conversation.1

While symptoms of MCI aren’t severe enough to hamper your normal activities, the major concern is that people with MCI have an increased risk of developing dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Fortunately, there are ways to protect your brain function and cut your risk of MCI as you age, including indulging in a variety of mentally stimulating activities.

Computers, crafts, games may cut risk of cognitive decline

If you’re a regular exerciser, you know that if you stop working out for a relatively short period of time, your physical fitness will start to decline. The same holds true for your mental fitness — if you don’t use it, you might lose it. Thus, engaging in activities that stimulate your brain is one of the simplest ways to keep your mind sharp as you age.

In a study of 2,000 people aged 70 years or older, who had no cognitive impairments at the start of the study, researchers issued surveys on the timing, number and frequency of engagement in five mentally stimulating activities:2

  • Reading books
  • Computer use
  • Social activities
  • Playing games
  • Craft activities

The participants recorded how often they took part in the activities during middle age (50 to 65 years) and later life (66 and older), and took thinking and memory tests every 15 months for an average of five years. The results were clear that the more activities people took part in later in life, the less likely their risk of cognitive decline became.3

For instance, engaging in two activities led to a 28% lower risk of MCI compared to doing none of them. However, those who engaged in three activities had their risk of MCI lowered by 45%, while those who took part in four activities cut their risk by 56%. The benefit plateaued at that point, as people who engaged in five activities received no further benefit, reducing their MCI risk by 43%. Other findings of note:4

  • Using a computer in middle-age was associated with a 48% lower risk of mild cognitive impairment
  • Using a computer in later life was associated with a 30% lower risk, while using a computer in both middle-age and later life was associated with a 37% lower risk
  • Engaging in social activities or playing games in both middle-age and later life were associated with a 20% lower risk of MCI
  • Engaging in craft activities in later life was associated with a 42% lower risk

"There are currently no drugs that effectively treat mild cognitive impairment, dementia or Alzheimer's disease, so there is growing interest in lifestyle factors that may help slow brain aging believed to contribute to thinking and memory problems — factors that are low cost and available to anyone," study author Dr. Yonas E. Geda of the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, said in a news release.5

The study authors further concluded, “Engaging in a higher number of mentally stimulating activities, particularly in late life, is associated with a decreased risk of MCI among community-dwelling older persons.”6

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Knitting, watching less TV also linked to brain benefits

The featured study was observational, which means it can’t prove that mentally stimulating activities were responsible for the brain benefits observed.

“ … [W]hile we found links between a lower risk of developing mild cognitive impairment and various mentally stimulating activities,” Geda said in a news release,7 “it is possible that instead of the activities lowering a person's risk, a person with mild cognitive impairment may not be able to participate in these activities as often."

However, past research also hints at the protective effects of keeping your brain engaged in mid- and later life. The type of activity appears to be less important than making sure you are doing something to challenge your mind.

One study revealed that craft activities such as quilting and knitting were associated with decreased odds of having mild cognitive impairment.8 Computer activities, playing games and reading books were also beneficial. Engaging in any of these activities was associated with 30% to 50% reduced odds of having MCI. Interestingly, so was watching less television.

Why stimulating your mind is good for your brain

As for why engaging in cognitive activities is beneficial, it could be that they act as a marker for a healthy lifestyle, such as a person who enjoys reading books may also be more likely to eat healthy, exercise and manage her stress in a healthy way.

There’s also something known as the brain/cognitive reserve hypothesis, which suggests cognitive activities may reinforce and stimulate the formation of neuronal networks in the brain that may protect against dementia.

“Since MCI is considered to be a prodromal state to Alzheimer’s disease, one can invoke the cognitive reserve theory to explain the inverse association between cognitive activities and the odds of having MCI,” researchers wrote in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences.9 There could also be a link to stress responses. The researchers explained:10

“According to this model, the hippocampus, which is the epicenter of the memory network, has a number of glucocorticoid receptors. These receptors are down regulated in excessively stressful situations. Thus, cognitive activities may serve as stress modifying agents, leading to decreased ‘neurotoxic’ insult to the hippocampus and related structures pertinent to cognition and emotion.”

Along these lines, engaging in “purposeful and meaningful activities,” which include things like music, drawing, meditation, reading, arts and crafts and home repairs, may help ward off stress-related disease and reduce the risk of dementia by stimulating the neurological system and enhancing health and well-being.11 The key may lie in choosing an activity that’s creative and meaningful to you.

In the case of knitting, for instance, which is often said to be an outlet for relaxation, stress relief and creativity, it’s linked to increased feelings of calm and happiness, higher cognitive functioning and increased well-being and quality of life.12

What is MCI?

Mild cognitive impairment is considered to be a state between cognitive function that normally occurs with aging and dementia. It’s estimated that 15% to 20% of people 60 years and older may be affected, with 8% to 15% of cases progressing to dementia annually.13

MCI is a slight decline in cognitive abilities that increases your risk of developing dementia, including Alzheimer's disease (although it is by no means a guarantee).

Simply misplacing your keys on occasion is not cause for alarm, however forgetting important information that you would have normally recalled, such as appointments, conversations or recent events, may be a sign. You may also have a harder time making sound decisions, figuring out the sequence of steps needed to complete a task or judging the time needed to do so.

Problems with movement and sense of smell may also be signs of MCI. Generally, diagnosis is made after a person or their friends or family notice increased lapses in memory and see a physician as a result. Memory and other tests of cognitive function may help with diagnosis.

If you’ve been diagnosed with MCI, it’s important to get regular checkups, as it can be a sign of early Alzheimer’s disease. While not everyone with MCI goes on to develop Alzheimer’s, according to the National Institute on Aging:14

“About 8 of every 10 people who fit the definition of amnestic MCI go on to develop Alzheimer's disease within 7 years. In contrast, 1 to 3 percent of people older than 65 who have normal cognition will develop Alzheimer's in any one year.”

MCI can be slowed and maybe even reversed

It’s important to understand that some cases of MCI do not progress and may even improve. Regular exercise, proper diet and engaging in mentally and socially stimulating activities may help to boost your brainpower.

The Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability (FINGER) trial is among those that have found a two-year lifestyle intervention, including healthy diet, exercise and cognitive training, may improve or maintain cognitive functioning in elderly people at risk of dementia.15 Further, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s disease:16

“Strong evidence reveals that antioxidant enriched diets and regular exercise reduces toxic radicals, enhances mitochondrial function and synaptic activity, and improves cognitive function in elderly populations …

Based on our survey of current literature and findings, we cautiously conclude that healthy diets, regular exercise, and improved lifestyle can delay dementia progression and reduce the risk of AD [Alzheimer’s disease] in elderly individuals and reverse subjects with mild cognitive impairment to a non-demented state.”

What to eat to lower your risk of MCI

Specific nutrients that may be beneficial for MCI include vitamin B12, which helps slow brain atrophy in elderly people with mild cognitive impairment.17 Medium chain triglycerides (MCT), found in coconut oil and MCT oil, may also help, as they’re a primary source of ketone bodies.

Ketones are what your body produces when it converts fat as opposed to glucose into energy, and it’s been found that MCTs may improve cognitive functioning in older adults with memory disorders.18 Mushrooms are another wise choice.

Compared with people who ate mushrooms less than once per week, those who ate mushrooms twice or more per week had a significantly lower risk of MCI.19 One portion was defined as three-quarters of a cup of cooked mushrooms, or 150 grams, which is a reasonable amount to add to your diet.

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), an herb that’s been an important part of Ayurvedic medicine since ancient times, is also impressive in terms of its role in improving memory and cognitive function. Those who took ashwagandha had significant improvements in a number of areas compared to the placebo group. This included greater improvements in:20

  • Immediate and general memory
  • Executive function
  • Sustained attention
  • Information-processing speed

The American Academy of Neurology also includes regular exercise in their clinical practice guidelines for people with MCI, stating that while “[n]o high-quality evidence exists to support pharmacologic treatments for MCI,” “In patients with MCI, exercise training (six months) is likely to improve cognitive measures.” They also add that cognitive training may improve cognitive measures.21

While it can be disconcerting to feel like your memory is slipping, and even more so to receive a diagnosis of MCI, it’s also empowering to know that you can take steps to improve the health of your brain and lower your risk of MCI. Engaging in mentally stimulating activities is one piece of the puzzle, and you can further bolster your brain by leading a comprehensively healthy lifestyle.