We all know the saying, if you don’t use it, you lose it — but is this the case with our brains?
Over the years, we’ve heard that all kinds of activities help strength cognitive function. From puzzles to video games, how accurate are these claims?
A Refresher on Mild Cognitive Impairment
We often focus on Alzheimer’s, as well as other forms of dementia, but today I want to highlight mild cognitive impairment (MCI). This is when individuals develop a minor but noticeable decline in cognition. Basically, the symptoms are worse than what a healthy person of their age would experience, but not severe enough to interfere with daily functioning.
It is estimated that between 5 and 20 percent of people over the age of 65 have MCI, which is why it’s important to diagnose this condition early. When you’re aware that you’re suffering from MCI, you can then actively implement positive changes into your lifestyle. In turn, this will reduce your risk of developing dementia.
Here is a quick cheat sheet to review MCI:
- Symptoms — memory issues, problems with reasoning and attention, reduced language skills, and poor visual depth perception. The key is the severity of these symptoms. Remember, the decline will be greater than that of normal aging, but will not interfere with everyday living.
- The causes vary — some are treatable, while some are not. In some cases, symptoms progress into Alzheimer’s, whereas other cases are caused by stress, depression, a physical illness, or even a vitamin deficiency. Approximately 10 to 15 percent of people with MCI will develop dementia per year, typically Alzheimer’s.
- Although there is no way to determine who will go on to develop dementia, you increase your risk if you suffer from a poorly controlled heart condition or diabetes. In that sense, it’s important to watch your blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s jump into some positive news!
Study Finds — Mentally Stimulating Activities May Protect Against MCI
Published in JAMA Neurology, a study was conducted by Mayo Clinic researchers. After following 1,929 cognitively normal participants, over the course of four years, it was found that mental activities may protect against new-onset MCI. This was even the case later in life.
More specifically, cognitively normal individuals 70 years or older who engaged in craft activities, social activities, computers, and games, significantly decreased their risk of MCI. After adjusting for sex, age and educational level, risk decreased by 30 percent with computer use, 28 percent with crafts, 23 percent with social activities, and 22 percent with games.
Furthermore, those who took part in these activities 2-3 times weekly suffered from less decline than those who participated just 2-3 times a month.
What’s even more interesting, is that these benefits were even seen among those who are APOE4 carriers — which is a genetic risk factor. It is important to note, however, that only social activities and computer use were associated with a decreased risk among individuals who carry this allele.
Stay Engaged to Stay Healthy
Once again, just because you go to Bingo every week or knit every night, does not mean that you will not develop MCI — but you will reduce your risk, and that’s something to take note of.
The point is to keep our mind active (as well as your body).
Just this past July, a study was published regarding a ‘brain training’ game. It was found to improve the memory of patients who were suffering from amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI) — which is the transitional period between healthy aging and the development of dementia.
There have been many games developed and tested in the past, some which have been more successful than others — but these have been fairly repetitive and boring. Simply put, people lose interest as their motivation dips. This is why the University of Cambridge developed their app, ‘Game Show’ — a memory game that tested both cognition and motivation in patients with aMCI.
Participants were assigned to either the control group or the cognitive training group. Those who were in the cognitive training group played the game for a total of eight one-hour sessions, for a total of four weeks.
What did they find?
- Those who played the game made approximately a third fewer errors and improved their memory score by an incredible 40 percent. In comparison to the control group, they also retained more complex visual information.
- Better yet, the cognitive training participants enjoyed the game and were motivated to continue playing. Not only did their episodic memory improve, but also their subjective memory and confidence.
So, what else could you do? Well, stick with something that you personally enjoy. If you like doing the activity, you’ll be more prone to participate weekly or even daily. Here are a few mentally stimulating activity ideas, as well as some lifestyle tips for MCI:
- Jigsaw and word puzzles
- Bridge or chess clubs within your community (or play with friends)
- Book clubs, as they encourage you to read and then discuss
- Church or community suppers
- Painting, knitting or pottery
- Daily walks, a seniors swim class, or even joining a bowling team
The key is staying active, engaged, and involved — do not retreat from challenges, but continue to encourage personal growth, regardless of your age.