older adults playing cards

(Credit: cottonbro from Pexels)

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Fun and games may be the best medicine for people at risk of developing dementia. A new study reveals keeping the brain active, through stimulating games like playing cards or doing puzzles could prevent Alzheimer’s onset by up to five years.

Researchers with the American Academy of Neurology add older people who keep mentally active are less likely to develop the memory-robbing condition. Stimulating the brain by reading or writing letters has the same effect.

“The good news is that it’s never too late to start doing the kinds of inexpensive, accessible activities we looked at in our study,” says lead author Professor Robert Wilson from Rush University Medical Center in a media release. “Our findings suggest it may be beneficial to start doing these things, even in your 80s, to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s dementia.”

The study, published in the journal Neurology, adds to evidence that taking up mind-challenging hobbies after retirement preserves grey matter in the brain.

Playing games may preserve brain health into your 90s

Researchers tracked 1,978 participants with an average age of 80 during this study.

“It is important to note, after we accounted for late life level of cognitive activity, neither education nor early life cognitive activity were associated with the age at which a person developed Alzheimer’s dementia,” Prof. Wilson continues. “Our research suggests that the link between cognitive activity and the age at which a person developed dementia is mainly driven by the activities you do later in life.”

The volunteers underwent annual Alzheimer’s examinations, such as memory and learning tests, over a span of seven years. During their follow-up, doctors diagnosed 457 patients (average age of 89) with dementia. However, those with the highest levels of cognitive activity did not develop the disease until age 94.

“Our study shows that people who engage in more cognitively stimulating activities may be delaying the age at which they develop dementia,” Prof. Wilson reports.

At the outset, the group rated their participation in seven activities on a five-point scale. Questions included, “during the past year, how often did you read books?” and “during the past year, how often did you play games like checkers, solitaire, board games, or puzzles?

Keeping your brain active throughout life is important too

Each individual also provided information about cognitive activity in childhood, early adulthood, and middle age. Researchers gave participants a score of one for answering questions “once a year or less” and a score of five if they did these activities “every day or almost every day.” The high and low cognitive activity groups scored an average of 4.0 and 2.1, respectively.

Prof Wilson’s team also looked at the brains of 695 participants who died during the study. They examined tissue for rogue proteins called amyloid and tau — two of the main drivers of dementia development. The study confirmed the idea that low cognitive activity is an early sign of dementia, not the other way around.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the number of Americans living with Alzheimer’s is up to 5.8 million as of 2020. The number of people living with the disease doubles every year beyond age 65. With no cure in sight, there’s an increasing focus on lifestyle changes that delay or even prevent the disease.

SWNS writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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