We all want to keep our minds sharp and our memories strong as we get older. So, what can we do right now to prevent cognitive decline in later years? Engaging in regular aerobic exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week, probably has the biggest effect on people of many ages (see here and here). Convincing evidence also suggests that a Mediterranean-style diet of fish, olive oil, avocados, fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, and whole grains is beneficial. But what about social and mental activities — do they help at all?
Social activities, a positive attitude, and learning new things
Previous research convincingly demonstrates that older people who engage in social activities, have a positive mental attitude, and work to learn new things maintain their cognitive abilities longer than those who are socially isolated, have a negative attitude, and do not try to learn new things. However, several questions remain. When is the ideal time to do these activities: in middle age or later in life? Does it help to do multiple activities, or is a single activity as good as several? And what about other common mental activities, such as reading books and playing games — do they help too?
Mentally stimulating activities: More is better
A recently published study from researchers at the Mayo Clinic followed 2,000 cognitively normal men and women age 70 or older for about five years. Participants filled out surveys regarding their engagement in five common mentally stimulating pursuits –– social activities, reading books, playing games, making crafts, and using a computer –– in midlife (between ages 50 and 65) and in late life (ages 70 and above). The researchers also performed face-to-face evaluations every 15 months. These evaluations included a neurologic interview and exam, detailed history of their abilities at home and in the community, and neuropsychological testing for memory, language, visuospatial skills, attention, and executive function.
When the study ended, the researchers looked at whether participants remained cognitively normal or developed mild cognitive impairment (MCI). MCI is diagnosed when a concern about a person’s thinking and memory is confirmed by testing that shows impairment on one or more tests of thinking and memory. However, day-to-day functioning is essentially normal, and the person is not demented.
The study yielded several important findings
- Engaging in two, three, four, or five mentally stimulating activities in late life correlated with a lower risk for developing MCI. A trend suggests a greater number of activities is linked to a greater reduction in risk.
- Three activities — computer use, social activities, and games — had benefits when pursued in both midlife and late life. However, crafts were beneficial only in late life.
- Reading books showed no benefit — a dismaying finding to me as both an author and an avid reader.
The bottom line
If we want to keep our minds sharp and our memories strong, the evidence suggests that there is much we can do today. We can engage in regular aerobic exercise. We can eat a Mediterranean-style diet. We can work to learn new things and keep a positive mental attitude. And lastly, with a nod to this new research, we can pursue social activities, play games, and use computers from midlife onward, and engage in crafts in late life. Books, on the other hand, should be read whenever we are seeking knowledge, wisdom, enlightenment, or enjoyment.
Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren
Jeremiah 29:11 ESV For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
Proverbs 3:5 ESV Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.
Colossians 3:2-5 ESV Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.
Matthew 5:28 ESV But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
1 Corinthians 6:19-20 ESV Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
1 Corinthians 2:11-16 ESV For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. …
1 Corinthians 6:18 ESV Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.
Matthew 22:37 ESV And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
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