Have you ever joked around when you’re working on an extremely difficult problem that it makes your head hurt? I’ve often said that my brain was cramping when I was taking statistics classes in graduate school. And even this morning, I found myself humbled at times when I did the online USA Today and Los Angeles Times crossword puzzles, which is my morning ritual. And then there are those Words with Friends games when I have to figure out how to use the J or Q tiles at the end of the game or have been dealt a hand with all vowels right during the crucial time of a contest.
It turns out that all of these activities are actually exercising my brain.
And researchers are finding that flexing your brain muscles as you age may help you stave off the mental decline toward the end of life. Science Daily reported on two studies out of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago that were published in the April 4, 2012 issue of Neurology. These studies illustrated what happens to a person’s mental state in the two years prior to death and the importance of mental fitness during your later years.
In the first study, researchers studied 174 Catholic priests, nuns and monks who didn’t have memory problems at the start of the study. This group was followed until their death, which was up to 15 years. The scientists then examined their brains to see if there were any signs of Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers found that the study participants’ memory and thinking abilities declined at rates that were eight to 17 times faster during the two-and-a-half years prior to their death. The scientists also found that while higher levels of plaques and tangles that were signs of Alzheimer’s disease coincided with an earlier onset of this mental decline, these brain changes were not linked to the actual rate of memory decline that the participants experienced.
In the second study, researchers followed over 1,000 people who were approximately 80 years of age and who did not have dementia. This group received annual memory assessments during a five-year period. As part of the assessment, the participants were asked about how often they did various tasks, such as reading a newspaper, writing letters, visiting a library, or playing board games. The researchers then rated the participants on the frequency of mental activities, with a rating of “1” indicating that they did the activity once a year or less. A rating of “5” indicated that they did at least one of these activities most days of the week, if not every day.
The results suggest a link between remaining mentally active and staving off memory loss. “Not only do persons with more frequent cognitive activity have a higher level of cognitive ability than those who are less cognitively active, but they also experience less loss of cognitive abilities over time, particularly in the kinds of skills involved in information processing (like speed of problem solving) which are thought to be important for thinking and memory as we age,” Dr. Robert S. Wilson, who was the lead researcher on both studies, told ABC News.