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December 18, 2018

'Using' your brain can't prevent you from 'losing' it in old age. (But there's a silver lining.)

Daily Briefing

    Crossword puzzles and other problem-solving activities can improve your mental performance, but these exercises won't prevent mental decline as you age, according to a study published in BMJ's Christmas Issue. But there is some good news: Brain teasers might raise the point from which the inevitable cognitive decline begins, the researchers said.

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    The 80-year brain study

    Roger Staff, along with other researchers from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland set out to test the validity of the "use it or lose it" conjecture, which suggests that your cognitive abilities will decline if you don't exercise your brain.

    The researchers used data from a long-running study that started in June 1947, when every 11 year-old that attended school in Scotland took a standardized test to determine their cognitive ability. Follow-up data was collected in 2000, when the researchers caught up with almost 1,000 of the 64-year-old test-takers.

    The researchers were able to recruit 500 people from that follow-up group for further research.

    The researchers recorded participants' education level and "typical intellectual engagement" using a 16-question questionnaire. The researchers tracked participants' overall cognitive health by testing their verbal memory and mental processing speed up to five times over the 15-year period.

    By the study's conclusion, researchers were able to report the cognitive abilities of 98 subjects over about 70 years.

    Results reveal we will 'lose it' no matter what

    The study findings did not support the "use it or lose it" conjecture, the researchers wrote.

    While intellectual engagement over the participants' lifetime is related to their cognitive ability in late adulthood, it did not affect "the trajectory of decline over time," the researchers write. In other words, some level of cognitive decline in older age is inevitable—no matter how many crossword puzzles you complete.

    But, you might not want to throw out your new book of Sudoku puzzles just yet.

    The researchers said that participants' with a higher level of educational attainment and intellectual engagement over time developed a sort of "cognitive reserve" that could prevent them from "falling below an absolute functional threshold," the researchers wrote.

    "[I]nvestment in problem solving throughout life could enhance cognitive performance, providing an individual with a higher cognitive point from which to decline." That means an individual who completes problem solving activities consistently over their lifetime will "bottom out" at a higher cognitive ability than someone who rarely exercises their brain.

    The study does have limitations, according to Deborah Blacker from Massachusetts General Hospital. For instance, she said that people with higher educational attainment are more likely to participate in studies that measure cognitive ability, which makes the results biased toward people with higher education levels. However, the researchers said they controlled for different levels of intelligence and educational attainment among participants, the Los Angeles Times reports.

    So, if you're still brainstorming holiday gift ideas for your parents, you can put some brain teasers on the shortlist, because, according to the researchers, high cognitive ability is "as good a gift as any" (Healy, Los Angeles Times, 12/11; George, MedPage Today, 12/10).

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