cognitive reserve

Mentally challenging activities key to a healthy aging mind

  • A small study shows significant changes in brain activity among older adults engaged in learning a cognitively demanding skill.

A study involving 39 older adults has found that those randomly assigned to a “high-challenge” group showed improved cognitive performance and more efficient brain activity compared with those assigned to a low-challenge group, or a control group.

The high-challenge group spent at least 15 hours a week for 14 weeks learning progressively more difficult skills in digital photography, quilting, or a combination of both. The low-challenge group met to socialize and engage in activities related to subjects such as travel and cooking. The placebo group engaged in low-demand cognitive tasks such as listening to music, playing simple games, or watching classic movies.

The high-challenge group demonstrated increased neural efficiency in judging words, shown by lowered brain activity when word judgments were easy and increasing activity when they became hard. This is a pattern of response typical of young adults, and was not seen in them before the intervention, or among those in the other groups. To some extent, these changes were still seen a year later.

Moreover, there was a dose-dependent effect — meaning, those who spent more time engaging in the high-challenge activities showed the greatest brain changes.

So did those who were oldest, perhaps because their brains were most in need, perhaps because they were the most disengaged. Most likely, perhaps, because both of these were true.

The bottom line, though, is that, while all mental stimulation is good in terms of building cognitive reserve, actively learning, and really pushing yourself, is what you need to get to, or keep at, the top of your game.



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Some cognitive training helps less-educated older adults more

  • A large study in which older adults underwent various types of cognitive training has found that less-educated adults benefited more from training designed to speed processing.

Data from 2,800 participants (aged 65+) in the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study has revealed that one type of cognitive training benefits less-educated people more than it does the more-educated.

While the effects of reasoning and memory training did not differ as a function of how much education the individual had, those older adults with less than a complete high school education experienced a 50% greater benefit from speed of information processing training than college graduates. This advantage was maintained for three years after the end of the training.

The training involved ten 60 to 75-minute sessions over six weeks that focused on visual search and processing information in shorter and shorter times.

Both reasoning and information processing speed training resulted in improved targeted cognitive abilities for 10 years among participants, but memory training did not. Memory training focused on mnemonic strategies for remembering lists and sequences of items, text material, and main ideas and details of stories and other text-based information. Reasoning training focused on improving the ability to solve problems containing a serial pattern.

The researchers speculate that speed of information processing training might help those with less than 12 years of education, who are at greater risk of dementia, close the gap between them and those with more education.

The training modules have been translated into online games delivered by Posit Science.

Less educated study participants were slightly older, less likely to be married, more likely to be African-American, and more likely to have hypertension or diabetes as well as heart disease than the more educated older adults.



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Coping with cognitive decline in MS

Cognitive impairment affects 40-65% of people with MS. Why? In the past year, a number of studies have helped us build a better picture of the precise nature of cognitive problems that may affect multiple sclerosis sufferers:

  • poorer performance on executive function tasks is fully explained by slower processing speed (which is presumably a function of the degradation in white matter characteristic of MS)
  • slowing in processing speed is associated with weaker connections between the executive area and the brain regions involved in carrying out cognitive tasks
  • cognitive reserve helps counter the decline in memory and cognitive efficiency
  • brain reserve (greater brain volume, ie less shrinkage) helps counter the decline in cognitive efficiency
  • working memory capacity explains the link between cognitive reserve and long-term memory
  • subjective cognitive fatigue is linked to the time spent on the task, not on its difficulty
  • mnemonic training helps protect against cognitive decline, but appears to be less helpful in those with slow processing speed.

What all this implies is that a multi-pronged approach is called for, involving:

  • working memory training
  • training in effective memory strategies
  • practice in breaking down cognitive tasks into more manageable chunks of time
  • practice in framing tasks to accommodate slower processing speed
  • physical and mental activities that encourage neurogenesis (growing more neurons) and synaptogenesis (growing more connections).

Here's some more detail on those studies:

Slow processing speed accounts for executive deficits in MS

A study of 50 patients with MS and 28 healthy controls found no differences in performance on executive function tasks when differences in processing speed were controlled for. In other words, although MS patients performed more poorly than controls on these tasks, the difference was fully accounted for by the differences in processing speed. There were no differences in performance when there was no processing speed component to the task. Similarly, MS patients with a greater degree of brain atrophy performed more poorly than those with less atrophy, but again, this only occurred when there was a processing speed aspect to the task, and was fully accounted for by processing speed differences.

[3939] Leavitt VM, Wylie G, Krch D, Chiaravalloti ND, DeLuca J, Sumowski JF. Does slowed processing speed account for executive deficits in multiple sclerosis? Evidence from neuropsychological performance and structural neuroimaging. Rehabilitation Psychology [Internet]. 2014 ;59(4):422 - 428. Available from:

Functional connectivity factor in cognitive decline in MS

A brain imaging study involving 29 participants with relapsing-remitting MS and 23 age- and sex- matched healthy controls found that, as expected, those with MS were much slower on a processing speed task, although they were as accurate as the controls. This slowing was associated with weaker functional connections between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (the executive area) and the regions responsible for carrying out the task. It's thought that this is probably due to decreased white matter (white matter degradation is symptomatic of MS).

[3938] Hubbard NA, Hutchison JL, Turner MP, Sundaram S, Oasay L, Robinson D, Strain J, Weaver T, Davis SL, Remington GM, et al. Asynchrony in Executive Networks Predicts Cognitive Slowing in Multiple Sclerosis. Neuropsychology. 2015 .

Brain and cognitive reserve protect against cognitive decline in MS

A study compared memory, cognitive efficiency, vocabulary, and brain volume in 40 patients with MS, at baseline and 4.5 years later. After controlling for disease progression, they found that those with better vocabulary (a proxy for cognitive reserve) experienced less decline in memory and cognitive efficiency, and those with less brain atrophy over the period showed less decline in cognitive efficiency.

Cognitive efficiency is a somewhat fuzzy concept, but essentially has to do with how much time and effort you need to acquire new knowledge; in this study, it was assessed using the Symbol Digit Modalities Test and Paced Auditory Serial Addition Task, two tests commonly used to detect cognitive impairment in MS patients.

[3943] Sumowski JF, Rocca MA, Leavitt VM, Dackovic J, Mesaros S, Drulovic J, DeLuca J, Filippi M. Brain reserve and cognitive reserve protect against cognitive decline over 4.5 years in MS. Neurology [Internet]. 2014 ;82(20):1776 - 1783. Available from:

Working memory capacity accounts for link between cognitive reserve & better memory

A study involving 70 patients with MS has found that working memory capacity explained the relationship between cognitive reserve and long-term memory, suggesting that interventions targeted at working memory may help protect against decline in long-term memory.

[3941] Sandry J, Sumowski JF. Working Memory Mediates the Relationship between Intellectual Enrichment and Long-Term Memory in Multiple Sclerosis: An Exploratory Analysis of Cognitive Reserve. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society [Internet]. 2014 ;20(08):868 - 872. Available from:

Cognitive fatigue linked to time on task, not difficulty

A study investigating cognitive fatigue in 32 individuals with MS and 24 controls has found that subjective and objective fatigue were independent of one another, and that subjective cognitive fatigue increased as time on task increased. This increase in cognitive fatigue was greater in the MS group. No relationship was found between cognitive fatigue and cognitive load. Fatigue was greater for the processing speed task than the working memory task.

In other words, the length of time spent is far more important than the difficulty of the task.

[3940] Sandry J, Genova HM, Dobryakova E, DeLuca J, Wylie G. Subjective cognitive fatigue in multiple sclerosis depends on task length. Frontiers in Neurology. 2014 ;5:214.

Story mnemonic training helps some

A series of small studies have found cognitive benefits for MS patients from a 10-session training program designed to build their memory skills using a modified story mnemonic. The MEMREHAB Trial involved 85 patients with MS, of whom 45 received the training. In the most recent analyses of the data, the benefits were found to be maintained six months later, but unfortunately, it appears that those with processing speed deficits gain less benefit from the training.

The training consists of four 45-minute sessions focused on building imagery skills, in which participants were given a story with highly visualizable scenes and given facilitated practice in using visualization to help them remember the story. In the next four sessions, they were given lists of words and instructed in how to build a memorable story from these words, that they could visualize. The sessions employed increasingly unrelated word lists. In the final two sessions, participants were taught how to apply the technique in real-world situations.

[3936] Chiaravalloti ND, DeLuca J. The influence of cognitive dysfunction on benefit from learning and memory rehabilitation in MS: A sub-analysis of the MEMREHAB trial. Multiple Sclerosis (Houndmills, Basingstoke, England). 2015 .

[3937] Dobryakova E, Wylie GR, DeLuca J, Chiaravalloti ND. A pilot study examining functional brain activity 6 months after memory retraining in MS: the MEMREHAB trial. Brain Imaging and Behavior [Internet]. 2014 ;8(3):403 - 406. Available from:


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Cognitive Reserve & Mental Stimulation

Cognitive decline is less in those who engage more frequently in cognitively stimulating activities.

Activities that keep you actively searching for words (such as scrabble and crosswords) may help reduce those tip-of-the-tongue experiences where particular words cannot quite be recalled.

Cognitive training programs can reverse cognitive impairment in many seniors

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

Factors helping you maintain cognitive function in old age

An 8-year study of over 2,500 seniors in their 70s, has found that 53% showed normal age-related decline, 16% showed major cognitive decline, and an encouraging 30% had no change or improved on the tests over the years. The most important factors in determining whether a person maintained their cognitive health was education and literacy: those with a ninth grade literacy level or higher were nearly five times as likely to stay sharp than those with lower literacy levels; those with at least a high school education were nearly three times as likely to stay sharp as those who have less education. Lifestyle factors were also significant: non-smokers were nearly twice as likely to stay sharp as smokers; those who exercised moderately to vigorously at least once a week were 30% more likely to maintain their cognitive function than those who do not exercise that often; people working or volunteering and people who report living with someone were 24% more likely to maintain cognitive function.

[909] Ayonayon HN, Harris TB, For the Health ABC Study, Yaffe K, Fiocco AJ, Lindquist K, Vittinghoff E, Simonsick EM, Newman AB, Satterfield S, et al. Predictors of maintaining cognitive function in older adults: The Health ABC Study. Neurology [Internet]. 2009 ;72(23):2029 - 2035. Available from:

Mental exercise helps maintain cognitive function during aging

A review of clinical trials which have examined the effect of cognitive exercise on longitudinal cognitive performance in healthy elderly individuals found 7 studies that met the criteria, and concluded that cognitive exercise training in healthy older individuals produced strong and long-lasting protective effects on cognitive performance, although it has yet to be shown to prevent incident dementia.

Valenzuela, M. & Sachdev, P. 2009. Can Cognitive Exercise Prevent the Onset of Dementia? Systematic Review of Randomized Clinical Trials
with Longitudinal Follow-up. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 17 (3), 179-187.

Brain exercises improve memory and processing speed

In the first study to link a commercially available software program to improvement on unaffiliated standard measures of memory and to better performance on everyday tasks, a study involving 487 healthy adults over the age of 65 has found that those who used the Brain Fitness Program for 40 hours over the course of eight weeks (an hour a day, five days a week) became twice as fast in processing, while those who spent the same amount of time watching videos on art, history and literature topics followed by quizzes showed no significant improvement. They also performed significantly better on memory and attention tests for which they did not train, and many also reported significant improvements in everyday cognitive activities such as remembering names or understanding conversations in noisy restaurants. The Brain Fitness Program consists of six auditory exercises designed to help the brain improve the speed and accuracy of processing.

Smith, G.E. et al. 2009. A Cognitive Training Program Based on Principles of Brain Plasticity: Results from the Improvement in Memory with Plasticity-based Adaptive Cognitive Training (IMPACT) Study.

Some activities associated with less memory loss

A study 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. Also, those who watched television for less than seven hours a day were 50% less likely to develop memory loss than people who watched for more than that. Other activities in later age were not significantly associated with a reduced chance of having MCI. Only two activities during middle age (50-65) were significantly associated with a reduced chance of later memory loss: participation in social activities and reading magazines.

Geda, Y.E. et al. 2009. Cognitive Activities Are Associated with Decreased Risk of Mild Cognitive Impairment: The Mayo Clinic Population-Based Study of Aging. Presented April 28 at the American Academy of Neurology's 61st Annual Meeting in Seattle, April 25 to May 2, 2009.

No support for 'brain exercise' software for healthy elderly

A review 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. This is not to say that it doesn’t; the fault lies in the quality of the research. The researchers found only a very small number of studies that met their criteria. Those that did meet the criteria were mostly found to be limited in their methodologies or lacking in follow-up. They concluded that more random clinical trials in cognitive training need to be conducted with sufficient follow-up time that can actually measure changes in daily functioning.

Papp, K.V., Walsh, S.J. & Snyder, P.J. 2009. Immediate and delayed effects of cognitive interventions in healthy elderly: A review of current literature and future directions. Alzheimer's & Dementia, 5 (1), 50-60.

Education may not affect how fast you will lose your memory

A study 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.

Wilson, R.S., Hebert, L.E., Scherr, P.A., Barnes, L.L., de Leon, C.F.M. & Evans, D.A. 2009. Educational attainment and cognitive decline in old age. Neurology, 72, 460-465.

Active social life may delay memory loss among older adults

Data gathered from 1998 to 2004 from the very large U.S. Health and Retirement Study has supported previous research suggesting that social activity is associated with slower cognitive decline. Indeed, memory decline among those with the highest social integration was less than half the rate among the least integrated. Social integration was assessed by marital status, volunteer activity, and frequency of contact with children, parents, and neighbors. The findings were independent of sociodemographic factors (such as age, gender, and race) and health status in 1998. The researchers found that the protective effect of social integration was largest among individuals with fewer than 12 years of education. There was no evidence that a poor or declining memory caused social withdrawal.

Ertel, K.A., Glymour, M.M. & Berkman, L.F. 2008. Effects of Social Integration on Preserving Memory Function in a Nationally Representative U.S. Elderly Population. American Journal of Public Health, 98 (7), 1215-1220.

Incidentally, another study that appeared in the same issue found that larger social networks were associated with a lower risk of dementia in women aged 78 and older. The study examined 2249 members of a health maintenance organization who were free of dementia at the start of the study. 268 (12%) of these were identified as having dementia four years later.

Crooks, V.C. et al. 2008. Social Network, Cognitive Function, and Dementia Incidence Among Elderly Women. American Journal of Public Health, 98, 1221-1227.

Older adults with more schooling spend fewer years with cognitive loss

A seven-year study involving over 7,000 people 70 years and older has found that a 70-year old person with at least 12 years of education can expect to live 14.1 more years without cognitive impairment, which is two-and-a-half years more than 70-year olds with fewer than 12 years of education. They can then expect to spend 1 year with impairment, which is about 7 months less than a person with fewer years of education. The impairment is also likely to be more severe for the more educated, and associated with worse health. This is consistent with the idea of cognitive reserve — that education provides a “buffer” that enables people to continue functioning well despite physical damage in the brain. However, when the damage finally can no longer be compensated for, the effects will be greater. But it shouldn’t be assumed that it is all downhill from there — even the severely impaired may recover, depending on the cause. Overall, about 11% of the mentally impaired recover, presumably because the decline is caused by a treatable condition.

Lièvre, A., Alley, D. & Crimmins, E. 2008. Educational Differentials in Life Expectancy With Cognitive Impairment Among the Elderly in the United States. Journal of Aging and Health, 20, 456-477.

10 minutes of talking has a mental payoff

A study of 3,610 people aged 24—96 examined mental functioning and social interaction, and found that, across all ages, cognitive functioning was better the The higher the level of participants' social interaction. Participants' level of social interactions was assessed by asking how often each week they talked on the phone with friends, neighbors and relatives, and how often they got together. Researchers controlled for age, education, race/ethnicity, gender, marital status and income, physical health and depression. In a second experiment involving college students, short-term social interaction lasting for just 10 minutes boosted participants' intellectual performance as much as engaging in so-called 'intellectual' activities for the same amount of time.

Ybarra, O., Burnstein, E., Winkielman, P., Keller, M. C., Manis, M., Chan, E., & Rodriguez, J. (2008). Mental Exercising Through Simple Socializing: Social Interaction Promotes General Cognitive Functioning. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(2), 248 –259. doi:10.1177/0146167207310454

Age differences in cognitive benefits of exercise and mental stimulation

A mouse study has found that while physical exercise (a running wheel) and mental stimulation (toys), singly and together, improved memory in old mice, exercise alone or exercise and stimulation improved memory in middle-aged mice but not stimulation alone, and only exercise alone benefited young mice. The results suggest that as we get old and maybe less able to exercise, cognitive stimulation can help to compensate, but exercise is central to memory reinforcement at all ages.

Harburger, L.L., Nzerem, C.K. & Frick, K.M. 2007. Single Enrichment Variables Differentially Reduce Age-Related Memory Decline in Female Mice. Behavioral Neuroscience, 121 (4), 679-688.

Alzheimer's pathology related to episodic memory loss in those without dementia

A study of 134 participants from the Religious Orders Study or the Memory and Aging Project has found that, although they didn't have cognitive impairment at the time of their death, more than a third of the participants (50) met criteria for a pathologic diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease. This group also scored significantly lower on tests for episodic memory, such as recalling stories and word lists. The results provide further support for the idea that a ‘cognitive reserve’ can allow people to tolerate a significant amount of Alzheimer's pathology without manifesting obvious dementia. It also raises the question whether we should accept any minor episodic memory loss in older adults as 'normal'.

Bennett, D.A., Schneider, J.A., Arvanitakis, Z., Kelly, J.F., Aggarwal, N.T., Shah, R.C. & Wilson, R.S. 2006. Neuropathology of older persons without cognitive impairment from two community-based studies. Neurology, 66, 1837-1844.

Simple Lifestyle Changes May Improve Cognitive Function

A study involving 17 people (35–69 years) with mild self-reported memory complaints but normal baseline memory performance scores, has found that 2 weeks on a program combining a brain healthy diet plan (5 small meals a day; diet rich in omega-3 fats, antioxidants and low-glycemic carbohydrates like whole grains), relaxation exercises, cardiovascular conditioning (daily walks), and mental exercise (such as crosswords and brain teasers) resulted in participants' brain metabolism decreasing 5% in working memory regions (left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex), suggesting an increased efficiency. Compared to the control group, participants also performed better in verbal fluency.

Small, G.W. et al. 2006. Effects of a 14-Day Healthy Longevity Lifestyle Program on Cognition and Brain Function. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 14, 538-545.

Risk of mild cognitive impairment increases with less education

A study of 3,957 people from the general population of Olmsted County, Minnesota is currently in train to find how many of those who did not have dementia might have mild cognitive impairment. A report on the findings so far suggests 9% of those aged 70 to 79 and nearly 18% of those 80 to 89 have MCI. Prevalence varied not only with age but also years of education: 25% in those with up to eight years of education, 14% in those with nine to 12 years, 9% in those with 13 to 16 years, and 8.5% in those with greater than 16 years.

Findings from this study were presented April 4 at the American Academy of Neurology meeting in San Diego.

Lifestyle changes improve seniors’ memory surprisingly quickly

A small 14-day study found that those following a memory improvement plan that included memory training, a healthy diet, physical exercise, and stress reduction, showed a 5% decrease in brain metabolism in the dorsal lateral prefrontal region of the brain (involved in working memory) suggesting they were using their brain more efficiently. This change in activity was reflected in better performance on a cognitive measure controlled by this brain region, and participants reported that they felt their memory had improved. The memory training involved doing brainteasers, crossword puzzles and memory exercises. Diet involved eating 5 small meals daily (to prevent fluctuations in blood glucose levels) that were rich in omega-3 fats, low-glycemic index carbohydrates (e.g., whole grains) and antioxidants. Physical exercise involved brisk walking and stretching, and stress reduction involved stretching and relaxation exercises.

The study was presented at the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology's Annual Meeting on December 11-15, in Hawaii.

How higher education protects older adults from cognitive decline

Research has indicated that higher education helps protect older adults from cognitive decline. Now an imaging study helps us understand how. The study compared adults from two age groups: 18-30, and over 65. Years of education ranged from 11 to 20 years for the younger group, and 8 to 21 for the older. Participants carried out several memory tasks while their brain was scanned. In young adults performing the memory tasks, more education was associated with less use of the frontal lobes and more use of the temporal lobes. For the older adults doing the same tasks, more education was associated with less use of the temporal lobes and more use of the frontal lobes. Previous research has indicated frontal activity is greater in old adults, compared to young; the new study suggests that this effect is related to the educational level in the older participants. The higher the education, the more likely the older adult is to recruit frontal regions, resulting in a better memory performance.

Springer, M.V., McIntosh, A.R., Winocur, G. & Grady, C.L. 2005. The Relation Between Brain Activity During Memory Tasks and Years of Education in Young and Older adults. Neuropsychology and Aging, 19 (2)

Diet, exercise, stimulating environment helps old dogs learn

A new study of beagles provides more evidence that diet and mental stimulation are important in reducing or preventing age-related cognitive decline. The study, involving 48 older beagles (aged 7 to 11), compared four combinations of behavioral enrichment (regular exercise and lots of mental stimulation) and supplementation of diet with antioxidants had on a beagle's ability to learn: regular diet and regular experience; regular diet and enriched experience; regular experience and an enriched diet; and enriched diet and an enriched experience. The study followed the beagles over two years. Those in the groups with either an enriched diet or enriched environment did better than those without either, but those who had both the enriched diet and an enriched environment did noticeably better than all the rest.

Milgram, N.W., Head, E., Zicker, S.C., Ikeda-Douglas, C.J., Murphey, H., Muggenburg, B., Siwak, C., Tapp, D., & Cotman, C.W. 2005. Learning ability in aged beagle dogs is preserved by behavioral enrichment and dietary fortification: a two-year longitudinal study. Neurobiology of Aging, 26, 77-90.

Being fluent in two languages may help keep the brain sharper for longer

A study of 104 people aged between 30 and 88 has found that those who were fluent in two languages rather than just one were sharper mentally. Those fluent in two languages responded faster on tasks assumed to place demands on working memory, compared to those who were fluent in just English, at all age groups. This is consistent with the theory that constant management of 2 competing languages enhances executive functions. Bilingual volunteers were also much less likely to suffer from the mental decline associated with old age. The finding is consistent with other research suggesting that mental activity helps in protecting older adults from mental decline. The participants were all middle class, and educated to degree level. Half of the volunteers came from Canada and spoke only English. The other half came from India and were fluent in both English and Tamil.

Bialystok, E., Craik, F.I.M., Klein, R. & Viswanathan, M. 2004. Bilingualism, Aging, and Cognitive Control: Evidence From the Simon Task. Psychology and Aging, 19 (2), 290–303.

Low self-esteem 'shrinks brain'

A British study questioned some 5,350 civil servants aged between 35 and 55 about their participation in 13 leisure activities, ranging from DIY and housework to cultural visits and evening classes. They were then given tests in verbal memory, mathematical reasoning, vocabulary and verbal fluency. Independent of socio-economic position, the highest level of cognitive ability was associated with regular cultural visits to theatres, art galleries and stately homes. This was closely followed by reading and listening to music, then by involvement in clubs and voluntary organisations, and participation in courses and evening classes. The association was stronger among men. While the researchers suggested that seeking mental stimulation may have a beneficial effect on cognition in middle age, and the research was popularly reported as indicating that “going to the pub is good for the brain” (going to the pub was indeed associated with a slightly higher cognitive ability, but less so that the afore-mentioned), it must be remembered that correlation does not imply causation.

Singh-Manoux, A., Richards, M. & Marmot, M. 2003. Leisure activities and cognitive function in middle age: evidence from the Whitehall II study. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 57, 907-913.

More support for importance of stimulation to protect against cognitive decline

A 15-year study of 92 seniors found that those with a low sense of self worth were more likely to suffer from memory loss as they got older. Moreover, the brains of those with low self-worth were up to a fifth smaller than those who felt good about themselves. It is speculated that those who are anxious and think negatively may set themselves up for memory loss by not bothering to engage themselves in activities that would stimulate and enrich their brains.

The study was presented at a conference at the Royal Society in London.

Regular participation in cognitive activities reduces Alzheimer's risk

6,158 persons aged 65 years and older from a biracial community in Chicago self-rated current frequency of participation in seven cognitive activities (e.g., reading a newspaper) and nine physical activities (e.g., walking for exercise). Four years later, 842 of those judged dementia-free were given a detailed clinical evaluation. 139 of these met criteria for Alzheimer's on clinical evaluation. When adjusted for age, education, sex, race, and possession of the gene allele associated with Alzheimer's, a one-point increase in cognitive activity score was associated with a 64% reduction in risk of Alzheimer's. Weekly hours of physical activity had no effect. Education and occupation were both associated with Alzheimer's risk, but these effects were substantially reduced when cognitive activity was taken into account.

Wilson, R.S., Bennett, D.A., Bienias, J.L., Aggarwal, N.T., de Leon, M.C.F., Morris, M.C., Schneider, J.A. & Evans, D.A. 2002. Cognitive activity and incident AD in a population-based sample of older persons. Neurology, 59, 1910-1914.

Compensating strategies for aging memories

PET scans of the prefrontal cortex reveal that older adults who perform better on a simple memory task display more activity on both sides of the brain, compared to both older adults who do less well, and younger adults. Although this seems counter-intuitive – the older adults who perform less well show activity patterns more similar to that of younger adults, this supports recent theory that the brain may change tactics as it ages, and that older people whose brain is more flexible can compensate for some aspects of memory decline. Whether this flexibility is neurological, or something that can be taught, is still unknown.

Cabeza, R., Anderson, N.D., Locantore, J.K. & McIntosh, A.R. 2002. Aging Gracefully: Compensatory Brain Activity in High-Performing Older Adults. NeuroImage, 17(3), 1394-1402

Talking may help seniors guard against memory decline

Earlier research has indicated cognitively stimulating activities (such as doing crosswords, playing scrabble, bridge, etc.) may help protect against cognitive decline (and perhaps even Alzheimers). Now a new report (not yet published) from the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan supports and extends this research by suggesting that simply talking helps keep your mind sharp at all ages. The lead researcher also speculates that, by encouraging children to develop their social skills, parents and teachers could also be helping them to improve their intellectual skills. And in the workplace, instead of encouraging employees to keep their noses to computer monitors and complete their tasks, effective supervisors might encourage them to take plenty of time out to socialize.

Mentally stimulating activities reduces cognitive decline

A study of 700 seniors over several years 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 (AD). General cognitive decline was also less among people who did more cognitively stimulating activities, in particular, in working memory, perceptual speed, and episodic memory. It is not yet known whether engaging in such activities helps prevent cognitive decline, or whether those who develop cognitive impairment are less likely to engage in cognitively stimulating activities.

Wilson RS, Mendes de Leon CF, Barnes LL, & et al. (2002). Participation in cognitively stimulating activities and risk of incident alzheimer disease. JAMA, 287(6), 742–748. doi:10.1001/jama.287.6.742

Leisure activity decreases risk of Alzheimer's disease

1,772 people age 65 or older participated in a 7-year study that investigated the effect of leisure activities on risk of dementia. It was found that, even when controlling for factors like ethnic group, education and occupation, those with high leisure activity had 38% less risk of developing dementia. There also appeared to be a cumulative effect, with an additional 8% risk reduction associated with each leisure activity engaged. Activities of all kinds were shown to be beneficial, but intellectual activities were associated with the highest risk reduction.

Scarmeas, N., Levy, G., Tang, M-X., Manly, J. & Stern, Y. 2001. Influence of leisure activity on the incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease. Neurology, 57, 2236-2242.

Dealing with memory failures in which you feel the information you want is "on the tip of my tongue"

Memory failures in which you feel the information you want is "on the tip of my tongue" appear to occur because the memory trails to those items have become faint, either because the items haven't been used regularly or because of age. Similar sounding items can help recall. To keep your memory trails strong, you need to use them - by reading, doing crosswords, anything that uses language and keeps you meeting new words.

James, L. E., & Burke, D. M. (2000). Phonological Priming Effects on Word Retrieval and Tip-of-the-Tongue Experiences in Young and Older Adults,. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 26(6), 1378–1391.

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Mental activity may protect against memory problems in MS

July, 2010

A new study points to the importance of cognitive reserve to protect sufferers of multiple sclerosis for cognitive impairment.

Memory and learning problems often occur in multiple sclerosis, but bewilderingly, are only weakly associated with the severity of the disease. A study involving 44 people around the age of 45 who had MS for an average of 11 years has found that those with a mentally active lifestyle had good scores on the tests of learning and memory even if they had higher amounts of brain damage. The findings suggest that, as with Alzheimer’s disease, 'cognitive reserve' protects against cognitive impairment. Differences in cognitive reserve may explain why some people have memory problems early in the disease, while others do not develop memory problems until much later, if at all.




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