Lifetime of Intellectual Enrichment Keeps Aging Brain Sharp

Megan Brooks

June 27, 2014

A lifetime of intellectual enrichment helps delay onset of cognitive decline in older individuals, new data from the Mayo Clinic Study on Aging show.

In this longitudinal study, researchers found ties between higher levels of education and working in mentally stimulating jobs in early- to mid-life, as well as higher levels of mid- to late-life cognitive activity, such as using a computer, reading, and participating in social activities, and better cognition with age.

"We found that both were helpful in delaying the onset of cognitive impairment, but the contribution of higher education/occupation was larger," Prashanthi Vemuri, PhD, from the Mayo Clinic and Foundation in Rochester, Minnesota, told Medscape Medical News.

"We also found that an individual with low education/occupation benefited more by engaging in high mid-/late-life cognitive activity than an individual with high education/occupation," Dr. Vemuri noted.

The study is published online June 23 in JAMA Neurology.

The results are based on 1718 cognitively healthy individuals and 277 individuals with mild cognitive impairment who completed intellectual lifestyle enrichment measures at baseline and are being followed long term.

"It is already known that education, occupation, and cognitively stimulating activity may be helpful in delaying the onset of dementia," Dr. Vemuri explained. "However, we studied 2 nonoverlapping principal components: education/occupation score (early-/mid-life nonleisure intellectual activity) and mid-/late-life cognitive activity measure based on self-report questionnaires."

Baseline cognitive performance was lower in men, older individuals, those with a lower education/occupation score, lower mid-/late-life cognitive activity, and APOE genotype.

The researchers calculate that high lifetime intellectual enrichment (75th percentile) may delay the onset of cognitive impairment by approximately 8.7 years in male APOE4 carriers and 8.8 years in female APOE4 carriers compared with a low lifetime intellectual enrichment (25th percentile).

High mid-/late-life engagement in cognitively stimulating activities (75th percentile) corresponded to engaging in several cognitively stimulating activities at least 3 times a week during mid-/late-life. Examples of these activities include reading books and magazines, playing games and music, artistic activities, crafts, group activities, social activities, and computer activities.

Irrespective of the number years of education, mid-/late-life cognitive activity was helpful in delaying the onset of cognitive impairment by at least 3 years, Dr. Vemuri told Medscape Medical News.

Overall, the findings support numerous prior studies showing that keeping the brain active throughout life may help protect against cognitive decline in old age, the researchers say.

Reached for comment, Heather M. Snyder, PhD, director, medical and scientific operations, Alzheimer's Association, said the study is from a "top notch" group of researchers looking at a fairly well-characterized population over time and the results add to a number of other studies suggesting that "continuing to stay mentally engaged is potentially beneficial."

"What we are also seeing in the literature is that mental engagement needs to be in the context of other lifestyle factors, such as reducing your vascular risk factors, staying physically active, and having a heart-healthy diet, which are all important as well," Dr. Snyder emphasized.

She noted that at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference that gets underway July 12 in Copenhagen, Denmark, many studies will be presented looking at the combination of different risk factors and lifestyle factors and how they may relate to risk of Alzheimer's and dementia.

The study was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Alexander Family Alzheimer's Disease Research Professorship of the Mayo Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health for the Opus Building. Several authors made disclosures. All are listed with the original article.

JAMA Neurol. Published online June 23, 2014. Abstract

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