Mental Stimulation, Neural Plasticity, and Aging: Directions for Nursing Research and Practice

David E. Vance, Nicole M. Webb, Janice C. Marceaux, Sarah M. Viamonte, Anne W. Foote, Karlene K. Ball


J Neurosci Nurs. 2008;40(4):241-249. 

In This Article


Mental stimulation, if it is to encourage neural plasticity, must be an activity that requires a significant amount of effort. Effective mentally stimulating activities should be novel, cognitively challenging, and preferably enjoyable so that older adults remain engaged. In those activities, the brain is forced to make new neural connections that increase cognitive reserve and improve cognitive functioning. Cognitive reserve and cognitive functioning decline significantly in some older adults, but compensatory activities can be employed to augment cognitive functioning. The dynamic action of learning and engaging in such compensatory activities has the potential to facilitate neural plasticity and improve cognitive functioning in older adults.

As primary care providers, nurses must assess older adult patients at each visit by inquiring about cognitive functioning; observing difficulty with attention, memory, and concentration; and making suggestions and referrals as needed. Conventional wisdom purports that doing the same activity repeatedly maintains cognitive function, but nurses must educate patients and their family members on the findings demonstrating that novel and cognitively challenging activities are needed to encourage the best possible cognitive functioning. Nurses also can suggest new ways to compensate for declines in cognitive functioning and help to implement these strategies. As the population continues to age, nurses and nurse researchers will undoubtedly increase their collaboration with psychologists, neurologists, and occupational therapists to develop new ways to encourage neural plasticity, improve cognitive functioning, and compensate for cognitive losses in older patients.


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