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Pick up a book to stay mentally sharp, study suggests

July 9, 2013

Seniors stay engaged during retirement in a wide variety of ways, but a new study suggests those who choose to do so through mentally stimulating activities may be doing their brain a big favor. Researchers from Chicago's Rush University Medical Center found that people who read books, write or otherwise participate in brain-enriching activities - regardless of age - are going a long way toward maintaining their memory as they get older, according to findings published in the journal Neurology.

Library combats lesions 
The results are based on a study of nearly 300 participants who were asked to complete an annual test measuring their memory over the course of six years. Study subjects also had to fill out a survey about how often they read books, wrote and participated in mentally stimulating activities during different stages in their lives. Then after the participants passed away, researchers looked at their brains for signs of damage such as lesions and plaques that indicate memory issues. Researchers found that whether it was early or later in life, mentally stimulating activity significantly reduced the progression of memory loss.

"An intellectually stimulating lifestyle helps to contribute to cognitive reserve and allows you to tolerate these age-related brain pathologies better than someone who has had a less cognitively active lifestyle," study author Dr. Robert S. Wilson told USA Today.

Many opportunities for seniors
Wilson's findings are just the latest to suggest that an active mind is a key component of a healthy lifestyle for seniors, and there is ample opportunity for older adults to indulge their intellectual curiosity. A number of retirement communities offer various clubs and classes directed at helping their residents stay mentally engaged, but big-name schools and universities have also taken part in the growing trend. 

For instance, at the University of Michigan, retirees can take advantage of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, where they are given the opportunity to continue their academic pursuits in a wide variety of subjects ranging from philosophy and politics to religion and literature.

Older adults seem to have recognized the benefits of staying mentally active later in life. For instance, in 2008 an estimated 10 percent of liberal arts graduates from Johns Hopkins University, Dartmouth College and the University of Oklahoma were 55 or older or retired, The New York Times reports.