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  • About 5.8 million people in the U.S. have Alzheimer’s disease or related dementia.
  • A new study finds that mentally-stimulating activities may help reduce risk of dementia.
  • There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

Doing mentally-stimulating activities more frequently such as taking educational classes, writing in a journal, or playing games or chess may reduce the risk of dementia, a study suggests.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 5.8 million people in the United States have Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, which includes about 200,000 people under age 65.

This number is expected to more than double by 2060, with minority populations affected the most, the agency said.

While medications are available that may slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease or lessen certain symptoms, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s or other dementias.

However, dementia is not an inevitable part of aging. Many lifestyle choices can reduce the risk of dementia — including staying physically active, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding smoking and treating high blood pressure.

Now researchers show that doing mentally challenging activities may be another way to keep your brain functioning well as you age.

This study shows that “mental activity, particularly what the researchers call ‘literacy activities,’ are protective of cognitive health in older adults,” said Dr. Gary Small, chair of psychiatry at Hackensack Meridian Health at Hackensack Meridian Health in New Jersey.

“The results are consistent with a lot of other research that’s been done, indicating that when you’re using your mind, it engages your neural networks,” said Small, who was not involved in the new research.

So “the old saying, ‘use it or lose it’ holds true not just for physical exercise, but also for mental exercise,” he told Healthline.

In the study, published July 14 in JAMA Network Open, researchers examined information on over 10,000 Australian adults 70 years or older, or 65 years or older for Hispanic and Latino and Black participants.

Data on participants came from a long-term study of older adults from 2010 to 2020.

At the start of the study, all participants lived in community settings (outside of nursing homes), and had no major cognitive impairment or cardiovascular disease.

In the first year, participants answered questions about their contact with close friends and close relatives, leisure activities, and trips to venues such as museums and restaurants.

Throughout the study, research staff assessed participants for dementia during regular visits.

Researchers also considered factors such as age, sex, race and ethnicity, education, socioeconomic status, living situation, smoking status, alcohol intake, physical activities, body mass index (BMI), and whether participants had diabetes or other chronic diseases.

The results showed that more frequent participation in activities such as educational classes, using a computer, and writing letters or in a journal was associated with an 11% lower risk of dementia.

Similarly, people who more frequently did activities such as playing games, cards or chess, or doing crosswords or puzzles had a 9% lower risk of dementia.

“In contrast, interpersonal networks, social activities and external outings were not associated with dementia risk,” the authors wrote. However, they suggest that this might be because too few participants in the study were lonely or isolated for an effect to be seen.

Creative artistic activities such as painting and woodworking were associated with a smaller reduced risk of dementia, but the results suggest that the effect was mainly among men.

While the study had a large number of participants, nearly all were white, so the results may not apply to other groups.

In addition, this is an observational study, so it can’t consider all factors that could affect the risk of dementia. In particular, participants may have been healthier and more engaged with their community than the general population.

Dr. Keith Vossel, director of the Mary S. Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Research and Care at UCLA, also pointed out that the authors acknowledge that they could not rule out that some of the participants who developed dementia during the study had mild cognitive impairment (MCI) at the start of the study.

“People with MCI often begin to restrict their leisure activities to those that are less cognitively demanding,” he told Healthline, which could affect the results.

However, when researchers excluded people who developed dementia within the first three years of the study, adult literacy and active mental activities were still associated with a lower risk of dementia.

Dr. Dung Trinh, a physician in Irvine, Calif., and founder of the Healthy Brain Clinic, who was not involved in the research, said the study is valuable for older adults and their caregivers because it provides potential strategies to protect cognitive health and promote overall well-being.

However, the authors of the study caution that more research is needed to know how much benefit would come from people starting up these activities later in life.

Other research, though, suggests that leisure activities that keep us moving, challenge our brain and connect us with others are linked to a lower risk of dementia.

So, “it is never too early or too late in life to start engaging in more active mental activities or adult literacy activities to protect the brain,” Trinh told Healthline.

In fact, “starting these activities earlier in life may offer additional benefits,” he said, “as cognitive reserve and brain health can be developed and maintained over time.”

Small emphasized that while it is important to maintain an active mental life as you age, you need to choose activities that you enjoy.

“There’s sort of a sweet spot,” he said. “If something is too easy, it’s going to be boring and not do much. If it’s too hard, it’s going to be stressful, and the person is going to give up.”

He also recommends doing a variety of mental activities that will stimulate different parts of the brain, such as visual-spatial skills, verbal skills, memory, logical, etc. This will give you what he calls a “full brain workout.”

Sometimes, though, mental challenges don’t come from playing games or doing crossword puzzles.

Two-and-a-half years ago, Small moved from Los Angeles, where he was a professor at UCLA running a large research program on Alzheimer’s disease and cognition, to take a bigger job running the Department of Psychiatry and behavioral health for a large health system in New Jersey.

“That was a challenging task — picking up and moving at this stage of my life and taking on these new skills,” he said. “But my own personal experience is that I feel cognitively stronger as a result of those mental challenges.”

Dr. Majid Fotuhi, an adjunct professor at George Washington University and medical director of the NeuroGrow Brain Fitness Center in McLean, Va., said the new study is in line with other research showing that people with a positive attitude about aging had a lower risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI). These people were also more likely to improve their cognitive abilities.

MCI is an early stage of memory loss or loss of other cognitive abilities. It increases the risk of dementia, but in some cases MCI can be reversed.

In the new study, “individuals who kept their brain active by participating in [cognitively] challenging leisure activities were more likely to stay [mentally] sharp,” said Fotuhi, who was not involved in the new research.

“In order to have that, you need to have a positive attitude,” he told Healthline. “So the underlying secret for keeping your brain sharp is to have a positive attitude, have a sense of purpose in life, look forward to aging and stay active.”

However, Fotuhi cautions that there is a difference between having a negative attitude and having depression, which is a disease that can have many underlying causes.

“If someone in your family has depression, you need to bring it to the attention of their physician, and have their depression treated, just like diabetes or any other disease,” he said.

Because many factors are involved in determining your risk of dementia, taking a whole body and mind approach may produce better results.

Fotuhi has developed a “brain fitness program” that involves lifestyle coaching, cognitive training and neurofeedback. Patients are also evaluated for possible vitamin or other nutrient deficiencies, sleep difficulties, depression and underlying brain problems.

“This is a holistic program — not only stimulating people’s brain with cognitive challenges, but also helping them with lifestyle choices like diet, exercise, and making sure they’re sleeping well,” he said.

In a 2016 study in The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease, 84% of older adults with MCI who did this program saw improvements in their cognitive function.

These results show that “if you have a holistic program, where you look at all individual aspects of a patient’s problems, you will see amazing results,” said Fotuhi.

Trinh cautions that while engaging in cognitive activities and adopting a healthy lifestyle can lower the risk of dementia, they may not prevent it entirely.

“Individual factors, genetics and other variables can also contribute to the development of dementia,” he said. “Therefore, it is essential to consult healthcare professionals for personalized advice and guidance.”

A new study finds that certain simple activities such as journaling, playing chess or doing a crossword puzzle may be linked to decreased dementia risk.