Reading, writing and engaging in activities that stimulate the brain could help preserve memory as people age, according to a study published in Neurology.

The study found that people who participated in activities that exercised their brain performed far better in tests that measured memory and thinking.

Study author, Robert S. Wilson, PhD, with Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, said that this could mean that "exercising your brain by taking part in activities such as these across a person's lifetime, from childhood through old age, is important for brain health in old age."

UC Irvine neurobiologists were the first to provide visual evidence that learning promotes brain health, suggesting that mental stimulation could limit the debilitating effects of aging on memory. Their findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Reading and writing could help slow down memory decline

In this study, the participants were tested every year, for six years (until they died).

They were also given a questionnaire asking whether they had participated in mentally stimulating activities - such as reading and writing - when they were children, middle aged, and in later life.

Steven Erikson reading a book
Activities such as reading could help people preserve their memory as they age.
Of the 294 participants included in the study, 102 developed dementia and 51 mild cognitive impairment.

Results of the tests suggest that people who were more mentally active preserved their memory more than those who weren't.

The rate of mental decline among people who frequently engaged in mental activity in later life was 32 percent lower than individuals with average mental activity. In contrast, the rate of decline was 48 percent faster among people who were mentally active infrequently.

In order to confirm their findings, the team autopsied the brains of the participants after death for signs of dementia, such as brain plaques or lesions.

The autopsies confirmed that people who were mentally active throughout their lives had a much slower rate of decline in memory than those who weren't, this was true after adjusting for different levels of plaque and tangles in the brain.

In fact, the researchers said that mental activity was responsible for nearly a quarter of the difference in mental decline.

Wilson said that "based on this, we shouldn't underestimate the effects of everyday activities, such as reading and writing, on our children, ourselves and our parents or grandparents."

The authors concluded:

"More frequent cognitive activity across the life span has an association with slower late-life cognitive decline that is independent of common neuropathologic conditions, consistent with the cognitive reserve hypothesis."

Cognitively stimulating activities could ward off dementia

The benefits of keeping the brain busy have also been explored in other studies.

A previous finding published in Archives of Neurology identified that people who keep their brain active throughout their lives with cognitively stimulating activities have lower levels of the β-amyloid protein - which is thought to be a major cause of Alzheimer disease.

Researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University similarly conducted a study which revealed that people who engage in mentally stimulating activities during their later years can reduce their risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer's.

Written by Joseph Nordqvist