Cognitive enrichment

Can you protect your aging brain by enriching your mind late in life?  A new study in JAMA Neurology suggests that you can. 

For years, researchers have noticed that people with more education and intellectually-demanding careers have a lower risk of dementia.  But the evidence has been less clear on whether intellectually-engaging activities may be protective when started later in life. 

In the new study(1), researchers separated lifetime intellectual enrichment into two categories: early/mid-life (gauged by education and occupation) and mid/late-life (gauged by a questionnaire).  Not surprisingly, high life-time intellectual enrichment was associated with higher cognitive function.  However, people who engaged in mid/late-life cognitive activity had less cognitive decline over time.  The effect of mid/late-life cognitive activity was particularly strong in people who did not have a high score of cognitive enrichment in early/mid-life.  In other words, it’s not too late to start training your brain! 

So what kind of intellectual enrichment can be effective?  Although brain training games and crosswords are popular, there’s little evidence to suggest that they are more protective than other types of intellectually-challenging activities, such as learning a new skill or activity, particularly in a social environment.  For example, a unique randomized trial reported that elderly people at risk of cognitive impairment who volunteered in elementary schools through the Experience Corps program in Baltimore experienced gains in cognitive function over 6 months improved executive function (2).

The study specifically looked at people who carry the APOE4 genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. As expected, older people with the APOE4 genotype had lower cognitive function overall, but APOE4 carriers with a high level of lifetime intellectual enrichment were shown to have their cognitive impairment delayed by almost 9 years on average(1). 

1. Vemuri, P., et al., Association of Lifetime Intellectual Enrichment With Cognitive Decline in the Older Population. JAMA Neurol, 2014
2. Carlson, M.C., et al., Evidence for neurocognitive plasticity in at-risk older adults: the experience corps program. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci, 2009. 64(12): p. 1275-82.

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