How reading, writing, and even playing games can thwart dementia

Lifelong mental activity is vital to slowing dementia's progress

Although there is no cure for dementia, a new study in Neurology found that reading and writing throughout one's life can slow the disease's progress—adding to a growing body of evidence linking lifestyle factors to the onset of dementia.  

For the study, Rush University Alzheimer's Disease Center researchers surveyed 294 patients about their reading and writing habits in their childhood, adulthood, and currently. For six years, the researchers tested the patients on their memory and cognition skills. The reasoning and memory of patients who read and wrote regularly declined at a slower rate than those who did not. 

After the patients died, the scientists examined their brains for physical signs of dementia, including brain lesions and plaque. Researchers deduced that patients who stayed mentally active throughout their lives had slowed the rate of cognitive decline 15% more than those who did not.

Lead author Robert Wilson told BBC News that the "brain that we have in old age depends in part on what we habitually ask it to do in life." He added that how well one stimulates their brain in childhood and adulthood has a "great impact on the likelihood these age-related diseases are going to be expressed."

Researchers do not know why mental activity is key

Simon Ridley, head of research at Alzheimer's Research UK, told BBC News that although he agrees with the study's findings, the underlying reasons why mental activity is important remains unclear.

"By examining donated brain tissue, this study has shed more light on this complex question, and the results lend weight to the theory that mental activity may provide a level of 'cognitive reserve', helping the brain resist some of the damage from diseases such as Alzheimer's," he said.

While more research is necessary, Alzheimer's Society's James Pickett recommends that in the meantime, "reading more and doing crosswords can be enjoyable and certainly won't do you any harm."

He added that the "best way to reduce your risk of developing dementia is to eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight" (Wilson et al., Neurology, 7/3; Briggs, BBC News, 7/3; Quinn, "The Two-Way," NPR, 7/8).

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