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Use it or lose it mentally

Friends playing cards together at home.

While you can’t do anything to guarantee you won’t develop dementia there is a growing body of evidence that you can significantly reduce the risk of developing it. It’s previously been shown that higher levels of education early in life could help to ward off cognitive decline as we age.

However, over the last few years researchers have also been looking at whether regular mental stimulation in mid and later life can provide a better defence against developing dementia.

Like physical exercise, mental exercise can help build up levels of healthy brain cells and also increase the connections between them. It’s known as ‘neurological plasticity’… and by building it up now you could be protecting your brain later in life.

We invest in our financial future, it’s time to start investing in our future health. It is thought that some pathology changes related to Alzheimer’s Disease can start 20 years before any obvious symptoms. That means investing in your health in your 40’s and 50’s is critical to what will happen to you in your 70’s or 80’s.

Recent studies suggest by engaging in mentally stimulating activity throughout your life you can improve your brain’s ability to function, therefore reducing your risk of developing dementia or helping to delay the onset of dementia as you age.

In a study published in journal Neurology early this year, Swedish researchers confirmed mental exercise could help as much as physical exercise to reduce a person’s risk of developing dementia.

What is interesting about this study is that it started four decades ago, which is significantly longer than most other studies looking at links between mental activity and cognitive decline. It also used participants who were much younger than other studies. The study involved 800 Swedish women who were on average 47 years old, and over the course of 40 years researchers asked participants questions about the mental and physical activities they engaged in, conducted cognitive testing, and recorded any dementia diagnoses.

The results showed that the women who participated in more mental activities were able to lower their risk of developing dementia by 34%, and those who participated in regular exercise lowered their risk by 57%.

Researchers concluded that mental activity really is just as important as physical activity for reducing your risk of developing dementia as you age. Their findings support a number of other studies released in recent years.

Published a few years ago in the Journal of Aging and Health, the NIH ACTIVE study looked at the benefits of mental training for older adults. Results showed those who completed at least 10 sessions had improved cognitive function in the months and years that followed.

A study published around the same time in JAMA Neurology looked at people in their 70s and 80s with no cognitive impairment, and compared their education levels, whether or not they had mentally stimulating jobs and whether or not they engaged in mentally stimulating activities later in life. The results showed that although education and employment were important, engaging in mentally stimulating activity in mid and later life could delay the onset of cognitive impairment by several years.

Finally, another study of people in their 70s and 80s with no cognitive impairment asked how often they did particular activities including reading, writing, crossword puzzles, and board or card games. Over the next five years, those who engaged in the most mentally stimulating activities were 50% less likely to develop any kind of cognitive impairment or dementia.

It just goes to show, if you don’t want to lose it, you need to use it.

To introduce some mental exercise into your week, look for activities that involve learning something new or are reasonably complex. You could start a new hobby, like knitting or crochet, learn to play an instrument or speak a new language. Pick up a book – and if you read regularly, try a different author or genre. Join a bridge club, go to bingo or complete a crossword. Challenge your mind at the supermarket by adding up the groceries in your head as you go. Rely on your brain rather than the satellite navigation in your car, or drive a different way to work.

If self-motivation is an issue, a good way to get into a routine is to sign up for a weekly class. Better yet, join with a friend and you can motivate each other.

Like all things in life, make it interesting and enjoyable and you will be more likely to incorporate it into your everyday life. As with physical exercise, any mental exercise is better than none, so be sure to grab a newspaper or magazine, find a pen, and get stuck into your favourite brainteaser.

Top tips for exercising your brain:

  • Learn a language or an instrument
  • Sign up for a regular class
  • Start a new hobby
  • Use mental math rather than your smart phone
  • Play a board game
  • Read a book
  • Drive a different route to your regular one
  • Complete a crossword or puzzle – check out The West’s Tuesday puzzle pages.


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