Brain exercises have long been linked to cognitive health for aging adults, but new evidence suggests that seniors who use computers regularly, read magazines, and engage in social activities may also reduce their risk of memory loss later on.
A Mayo Clinic study of 1,929 people aged 70 and older, who were already participating in a larger study by the nonprofit medical research group based in Rochester, Minnesota, found that those who used a computer once per week or more were 42 percent less likely to develop memory or thinking problems than those who did not.1
Results of the study were presented in April 2016 to the American Academy of Neurology.
The participants, who had “normal memory and thinking abilities” when recruited to the study, were followed for an average of four years.
A total of 193 out of 1,077 people, or nearly 18 percent, in the “computer use” group developed mild cognitive impairment, compared with 263 out of 852, or 31 percent, of people in the group that did not, the study found.
Similarly, those who engaged in social activities were 23 percent less likely to develop memory problems, while seniors who read magazines, engaged in craft activities such as knitting, and played games were 30 percent, 16 percent, and 14 percent less likely to develop memory problems, respectively, than their peers who abstained.
Study author Janina Krell-Roesch, Ph.D., with the Mayo Clinic, and a member of the American Academy of Neurology, said in an interview that the results show the importance of keeping the mind active as we age.
“We cannot establish cause and effect, but among people aged 70 and older who engage in mentally stimulating activities at least once per week we see a statistically significant decrease in the new onset of mild cognitive impairment,” she said.
According to the Mayo Clinic, mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, is an intermediate stage between the expected cognitive decline of normal aging and the more serious onset of dementia.1
Those who develop mild cognitive impairment may exhibit problems with memory, language, thinking, and judgment that are “greater than normal age-related changes,” it noted, but are not severe enough to interfere with their day-to-day life and usual activities.
They may be aware that their mental function has declined, and family and close friends may notice, too.
The Mayo Clinic suggests mild cognitive impairment may increase one's risk of developing dementia later in life, but some who are diagnosed with MCI never get worse — and some even get better.
Dementia describes a set of symptoms that may be caused by different brain disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease or other neurological conditions. Symptoms involve a loss of thinking, memory, and reasoning skills.
When to seek help for cognitive impairment
Difficulty remembering a person’s name, certain words or where you put your glasses in old age is not necessarily a sign of memory loss, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Institute on Aging, or NIA.2
Indeed, our brains and bodies naturally slow down over time.
More serious memory problems interfere with everyday life, such as driving, shopping, or talking with friends, the NIA notes. Signs of dementia include asking the same questions over and over; getting lost in places you know well; difficulty following directions; becoming more confused about time, people and places; and neglecting personal safety, hygiene, and nutrition.2 (Related: Talking money with your aging parent)
The NIA recommends anyone experiencing such problems consult their physician promptly.
Keep in mind, however, memory loss may be related to any number of treatable health issues, such as medication side effects, vitamin B12 deficiency, alcoholism, tumors or infections in the brain, or blood clots in the brain, NIA reports.3 Other causes may include thyroid, kidney, or liver disorders. Emotional problems such as stress, anxiety or depression, may also produce dementia-like symptoms, the agency notes.
For those who do have dementia, early detection is key.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, early intervention enables seniors to maximize the benefits of available treatment and services, participate in clinical trials if desired, and engage in decision-making with family members about future care, transportation needs, living options, and financial and legal matters. It may also help seniors remain independent longer.
Nina Silverberg, program director for the Alzheimer’s disease Centers program in the NIA’s division of neuroscience, agreed.
“It is very important to speak with a physician because it may not be dementia or Alzheimer’s disease at all; it may be something as simple as a medication issue,” she said in an interview. “There are many possible reasons why you could be having memory issues, but if it is dementia you need to know that, too, so you can understand what is going to happen and start planning.” (Learn more: Planning for diminished capacity )
Likewise, she added, caretakers need time to educate themselves on what’s to come and how to help, as well as build their own support network. Because the genetic link to Alzheimer’s disease remains unclear, immediate family members may also wish to participate in ongoing clinical trials.
“By planning in advance, it doesn’t become an emergency when it doesn’t have to be,” said Silverberg, noting caretakers of patients suffering from dementia are often at risk of jeopardizing their own health. “It is really important for the caregiver to get rest and help from others, because they still have all their other responsibilities as well. Planning ahead is important to everyone’s health.”
To keep your brain healthy, NIA suggests seniors learn a new skill; volunteer in their community; spend time with friends and family; use memory tools such as big calendars, to-do lists, and notes to themselves; put wallet, purse, keys and glasses in the same place each day; get plenty of rest, exercise and eat well; limit their alcohol intake; and get help if they feel depressed for weeks at a time.
Research suggests they might also consider brain exercises. A 2014 study by the NIA and the National Institute of Nursing Research found training to improve cognitive abilities in older people produced a benefit 10 years after the program was completed.4
Initially, the findings demonstrated the effects of the training lasted for five years, but a longer-term study now suggests cognitive training as an intervention can provide a lasting benefit a decade later — particularly when it comes to reasoning and speed of processing.
“There is less definitive data about the effect of brain games [that test memory and attention span] and I think we need to understand more about them, but there is quite good evidence about cognitive improvements linked to physical activity and social interaction, especially the combination,” said Silverberg.
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This article was originally published in September, 2016. It has been updated.
1 Mayo Clinic, “Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)," Aug. 23, 2018.
2 National Institute on Aging, “Do Memory Problems Always Mean Alzheimer’s Disease?” Jan. 24, 2018.
3 National Institute on Aging, AgePage, “Forgetfulness: Knowing When to Ask for Help,” February 2016.
4 National Institute on Aging, “Cognitive Training Shows Staying Power,” January 2014.