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Lifetime of Reading Slows Cognitive Decline

New research finds mentally challenging activities build up cognitive reserves, providing protection against the effects of common old-age neurological disorders.
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The more time you spend on cerebral activities, the better prepared your brain is to withstand the ravages of age.

That’s the takeaway from research just published in the journal Neurology that confirms—and helps explain why—people who habitually read, write, and otherwise process information are less likely to experience mental declines late in life.

The study suggests that while a mentally active lifestyle may not prevent formation of the plaques and tangles associated with Alzheimer’s disease, it makes it less likely their presence will impair one’s mental functioning.

“Individuals with high lifetime levels of cognitive activity show slower decline, despite the presence of underlying pathology.”

“Habitual participation in cognitively stimulating pursuits over a lifetime might substantially increase the efficiency of some cognitive systems,” writes a research team led by neuropsychologist Robert Wilson of Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center. This efficiency apparently counteracts the often-devastating effects of nervous system diseases.

Wilson and his colleagues describe a study of 294 elderly people, who began by reporting their level of cognitive activity—not only at the present time, but also during childhood, young adulthood, and middle age. They specifically noted how often they performed such activities as reading books, writing letters, or visiting a library at each stage of their lives.

Their cognitive functioning was then examined on a yearly basis up until their death. Tests were given to measure a variety of skills, including long-term memory, working memory, and visuospatial ability. Finally, within hours after their deaths, their brains were removed and examined for evidence of various diseases.

The key result: “More frequent cognitive activity can counterbalance the cognitive loss associated with neuropathological conditions.”

In the words of an accompanying editorial, the researchers found that “individuals with high lifetime levels of cognitive activity show slower decline, despite the presence of underlying pathology.”

“Interestingly,” the editorial continues, “both more frequent current and early-life engagement in cognitively stimulating activities were shown to independently slow late-life cognitive decline.” This suggests it's never too late to start, but earlier is better.

A study published last year also reported a link between mental activity and old-age neurological disorders. It found people who were mentally active throughout their lives had, in their later years, lower levels of beta-amyloids—clumps of proteins that build up into the plaques associated with Alzheimer’s Disease.

That would certainly be a good thing. But even if it’s ultimately disproved, this new research suggests regular mental stimulation is still extremely valuable in that it reduces the insidious ability of such neurological disorders to impair our thinking.

Either way, the studies point toward the same prescription. As the Neurology editorial notes, we all “ask ourselves from time to time, can we do anything to slow down late-life cognitive decline? The results suggest yes—read more books, write more, and do activities that keep your brain busy, irrespective of your age.”