Brain Exercises May Slow Cognitive Decline – But Not Without a Price

Karen Lee Richards Health Guide
  • A new study published today in the online issue of the journal Neurology shows that doing mentally stimulating activities such as crossword puzzles, reading and listening to the radio may slow the decline of cognitive abilities and even prolong the time until dementia begins, but once Alzheimer’s disease sets in, its progression may be faster. 

    You may be wondering what this has to do with chronic pain.  Actually, quite a lot.  Many of us who have chronic pain illnesses like fibromyalgia and ME/CFS struggle with cognitive functioning problems such as memory loss and difficulty thinking and problem solving.  It can get so bad that some patients say the cognitive problems bother them even more than the pain. 

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    Study Methods and Results

    Researchers evaluated the mental activities of 1,157 people age 65 or older who did not have dementia at the start of the nearly 12-year study. Participants answered questions about how often they participated in mental activities such as listening to the radio, watching television, reading, playing games and going to a museum.  A five-point cognitive activity scale was used – the more points scored, the more often people participated in mentally stimulating exercises. Participants were assessed at three-year intervals. 

    Over the last half of the study, they found:

    • The rate of cognitive decline in those without cognitive impairment decreased by 52 percent for each point on the cognitive activity scale.

    • For those who developed Alzheimer’s disease, the average rate of decline per year increased by 42 percent for each point on the cognitive activity scale.

    Why does this happen?

    In a press release, study author Robert S. Wilson, Ph.D., with Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, speculated that mentally stimulating activities may somehow enhance the brain’s ability to function relatively normally despite the buildup of lesions in the brain associated with dementia. However, once they are diagnosed with dementia, people who have a more mentally active lifestyle are likely to have more brain changes related to dementia compared to those without a lot of mental activity. As a result, those with more mentally active lifestyles may experience a faster rate of decline once dementia begins.

    Wilson noted that mental activities compress the time period that a person spends with dementia, delaying its start and then speeding up its progress. “This reduces the overall amount of time that a person may suffer from dementia,” he said.

    My Thoughts...

    Ever since I first began having problems with “fibro fog” and other cognitive difficulties, I have spent much of my free time doing things like crossword puzzles and word games to try to keep my mind as sharp as possible – and it seems to be working.  When I first saw this study, I wondered if I was doing the wrong thing.  But after reading more about it, I'm comfortable continuing on my course of mentally stimulating activities. 

    There are two basic reasons why I chose to keep doing my crossword puzzles:

  • 1.  When I saw that the study even counted watching TV and listening to the radio as a mentally stimulating activity, I wondered what I could possibly do that woudn't be considered mentally stimulating other than to sit and stare into space.  Not for me.  What good is keeping my mind functioning longer if I can't ever use it? 

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    2.  There's no way of knowing how long I will live.  I'd rather make good use of the time I have now and take my chances later.  Since mental activity seems to delay the onset of dementia, I may even be gone before it catches me. 

    We each have to decide for ourselves, but I'm going to keep challenging myself mentally for as long as I can.

    Wilson RS, et al. Cognitive activity and the cognitive morbidity of Alzheimer disease. Neurology. 2010, doi:10.1212/WNL.0b013e3181f25b5e. Published online ahead of print, September 1, 2010.
    Brain Exercises May Slow Cognitive Decline Initially, But Speed Up Dementia Later. Newswise press release. 8/24/10.


Published On: September 01, 2010