Boosting Your Brainpower in Old Age: Do Scientists Really Think Mental Workouts Can Help?

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…or is there no point in reading all those books, doing all those crosswords and keeping mentally active?

You may have thought the case for keeping the mind active over the years was open and shut.

To protect your brain against cognitive decline with age, you should keep it active. It’s common sense isn’t it? Keep doing the Sudoku, reading books, doing crosswords, whatever you can.

People who keep their minds active stay sharper for longer, don’t they?

Indeed they do. But until now scientists had little evidence of what caused what.

Could it be, they wondered, that some people stay mentally active with age because they have an inbuilt genetic advantage. Maybe some of us are just destined to get more befuddled with age and, as a result, the life of the mind naturally fades.

In other words, perhaps there’s no need to bother keeping the mind active because how much your brainpower declines with age is unrelated to how much you use it.

Slowing cognitive decline

Now a new study published in Neurology has weighed in with evidence that, in fact, using your brain may indeed cause it to stay in better shape over the years.

Wilson et al. (2013) collected this evidence by looking at the brains of 294 people who had died and examining them for tell-tale signs of physical decline. They knew how much these people had stimulated their minds as they’d answered questionnaires over the years about how often they’d:

  • read books,
  • visited libraries,
  • written letters,
  • and sought out or processed information.

They found that:

“…people who participated in mentally stimulating activities both early and late in life had a slower rate of decline in memory compared to those who did not participate in such activities across their lifetime, after adjusting for differing levels of plaques and tangles in the brain. Mental activity accounted for nearly 15 percent of the difference in decline beyond what is explained by plaques and tangles in the brain.”

So it seems that mental activity really could be a protective factor against mental decline with age:

“The study found that the rate of decline was reduced by 32 percent in people with frequent mental activity in late life, compared to people with average mental activity, while the rate of decline of those with infrequent activity was 48 percent faster than those with average activity.”

This study suggests that keeping mentally active really can protect us from cognitive decline with age. And it’s never too early to start flexing those cognitive muscles.

Image credit: Nathan O’Nions

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About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 11 July 2013

Text: © All rights reserved.

Images: Creative Commons License