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Stay mentally engaged and stay healthy

November 28, 2012

The importance of staying active after retirement cannot be overstated, and most people make the effort to incorporate exercise into their daily regimen to promote healthy aging. Yet, while physical activity is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle for seniors, a new study highlights the importance of staying mentally engaged as one ages.

A new study from researchers at Rush University Medical Center and the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago claims that mental activities like reading, writing and playing games can help preserve seniors' cognitive acuity. The study, a part of the Rush Memory and Aging Project that was recently presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, followed 152 people with an average age of 81 who were screened for cognitive disorders like dementia. Participants were asked how frequently they participated in mentally stimulating activities that ranged from reading the newspaper to playing chess, before they underwent tests to monitor the effect that this cognitive activity had on the brain's white matter.

One of the key elements in cognition, white matter consists mainly of nerve fibers that transmit stimulus information throughout the brain. As one ages, the brain begins to develop extended gaps and axonal membranes that slow the rate of diffusion anisotropy, resulting in cognitive problems such as forgetfulness or confusion.

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans and diffusion tensor imaging, researchers found that greater mental stimulation produced a higher anisotropy rate in seniors. This phenomenon preserves the microstructural integrity of the many parts of the brain, including several that are directly linked to cognitive function.

"Keeping the brain occupied late in life has positive outcomes," said Dr. Konstantinos Arfanakis, the lead researcher for the study. "Higher diffusion anisotropy in elderly patients who engage in frequent cognitive activity suggests that these people have brain properties similar to those of younger individuals."

Though the results are promising, Dr. Arfanakis insists that the study is far from complete, as researchers hope to continually follow up with these patients to further assess the rate at which diffusion anisotropy deteriorates over time, and what long term effects mental engagement may have on it.

"In these participants, we've shown an association between late-life cognitive activity and structural integrity, but we haven't shown that one causes the other," said Dr. Arfanakis. "We want to follow the same patients over time to demonstrate a causal link."