If you enjoy games, crafts, computer use, and getting together with friends, here’s some more good news: A new study suggests that having this kind of fun, even later in life, can provide enough mental stimulation to help you stave off mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, a condition that can often lead to early dementia.
The researchers, whose findings were published online in January 2017 in JAMA Neurology, followed 1,929 men and women age 70 to 93 for approximately four years. The participants were examined at the start to ensure that they had no cognitive problems, and were asked how often over the previous year they had played games, used a computer, did crafts, or engaged in social activities.
Participants were reassessed every 15 months to check for cognitive decline and received a blood test to see if they had the APOE4 gene, which is a well-known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.
The results: Cognitively normal elderly people who played games, did crafts, used computers, and socialized with friends were less likely to lose cognitive function than those who did nothing. Even among people with a higher hereditary risk, cognitive loss was less common with computer use and socializing. Not surprisingly, mild cognitive decline was most common among participants who were at highest hereditary risk and who had little mental stimulation.
The study had limitations. Some participants could not recall which activities they did, or when or how often they did them. Also, the researchers did not test the effects of mentally stimulating leisure on young and middle-aged people.
Most serious of all, the authors had no way of knowing if people who were already developing Alzheimer’s disease but did not yet have symptoms participated less frequently in activities because they were developing dementia.
If you are older and have a family history of cognitive decline, a little mental stimulation can help you stay alert longer. It’s not too late to start playing cards or board games, surfing the Web, or getting involved with a club or civic organization.
(Originally published Feb. 10, 2017; updated Feb. 24, 2017)