Study: Key to strong mental fitness in senior years is stimulating brain early on

EXETER, United Kingdom — Staying mentally active in your younger years pays dividends once you reach later life. A new study finds that people who take on leadership roles or partake in continuing education early on are more likely to have a healthy brain in their senior years, especially if they’re well-rounded socially and physically.

Researchers at the University of Exeter and other institutions in England examined data from 2,315 mentally-fit senior citizens, hoping to test the theory that experiences in which the brain is challenged during or prior to mid-age years promote resiliency to neurological disease in later life.

Elderly couple with grandkids
A new study finds that a key to enjoying a healthy brain in your senior years is taking on mentally-stimulating roles early on in life.

The data was derived from the earliest iteration of the Cognitive Function and Ageing Study Wales (CFAS-Wales), a longitudinal study that started nearly 30 years ago. The age of the study allowed researchers to analyze whether a healthy lifestyle in one’s earlier years was associated with enhanced mental performance in later life.

They found that many of the main markers of a healthy lifestyle before advanced age— a good diet, a high amount of physical activity, sufficient levels of social and mental stimulation, and moderate alcohol consumption— seemed to boost cognitive performance in one’s later years.

It is “cognitive reserve” that “builds a buffer in the brain, making it more resilient,” says lead researcher Linda Clare, professor of clinical psychology of ageing and dementia, in a university news release. “It means signs of decline only become evident at a higher threshold of illness or decay than when this buffer is absent.”

In other words, maintaining a healthy lifestyle in one’s earlier years contributes to a store of health that can be accessed later on. Maintaining a high level of cognitive reserve makes one more likely to avoid mental illnesses, such as dementia, as a senior, the team found.

Overall, the researchers conclude that exercise and the related factors mentioned not only help prevent deterioration of the brain, but can help prevent other illnesses, such as heart disease.

This study is one component of a larger research inquiry that hopes to look into the factors that curb mental and physical decline in old age.

“Losing mental ability is not inevitable in later life. We know that we can all take action to increase our chances of maintaining our own mental health, through healthy living and engaging in stimulating activities,” says Clare. “It’s important that we understand how and why this occurs, so we can give people meaningful and effective measures to take control of living full and active lives into older age.”

The study’s findings were published in the journal PLOS Medicine.


  1. How does one not stay mentally active? Are the mentally inactive those who are simply left alone too much or what? I suppose I can overthink this and come up with stuff, but who sits around their entire lives with nothing on their minds? If you are found to be mentally inactive, who diagnosed it, what exactly are the symptoms and how you describe it to a health professional? If you prefer reading to video games are you mentally active? I ask all this in dead seriousness. I hear vague admonitions all the time: be active, stay alert, eat a healthy diet, get plenty of sleep, keep mentally active and so forth and so on. But there are seldom any hard “prescriptions”. I guess this is because everybody is different with different specific needs. And that begs the question, what good is this article if it applies to nobody specifically? I think ET had it right all along, “Be good”. That seems sufficiently vague to cover, well … everything.

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