You really can teach an old dog new tricks. That’s because the brain is pliable, enabling it to make new cells and connections whatever your age. In fact, the latest research shows that you can take advantage of that pliability to protect your memory for years to come.
A new study demonstrates a task as simple as learning new skills in middle age and beyond can markedly reduce the risk of dementia. Here’s what you need to know…
Researchers have long known that keeping mentally engaged sharpens and protects your memory. One of the best ways to engage your brain is to use brain games such as crosswords, brainteasers, sudoku puzzles, and certain computer games.
Studies show these can lower the rate of cognitive decline for those who are middle aged or even in their senior years.
Reduces Your Risk of Dementia
A review of a dozen studies involving a whopping 13,939 participants concluded that late-life cognitive activity reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
And earlier this year, we reported that seniors studying three new subjects for 15 hours a week in a university setting substantially boosted their cognition. This level of intensity, however, may go beyond what many would want to take on.
Researchers from Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan wondered whether a less intense version of this learning program could help. They believed the answer would be yes because of the findings from previous studies, especially one large women’s study where participation in adult education, groups for art, craft, or music lowered their risk of dementia.
For their research they used the large U.K. Biobank database which contains in-depth genetic, health and sociodemographic information. The Biobank had participants’ attendance at adult education classes recorded, however the type of class, how often they attended and for how long was not known.
Lowers Dementia Risk By 19 Percent
The researchers analyzed data from 282,421 participants between the ages of 40 and 69 and followed them for seven years. During this period, they had three assessments which included a battery of psychological and cognitive tests. Over the study period 1.1 percent of subjects developed dementia.
After considering multiple factors that could influence the results including cognitive function at baseline, ethnicity and participants’ genetic predisposition to dementia, the Japanese neuroscientists made a remarkable discovery. When compared to participants who didn’t attend classes, those who did had a 19 percent lower risk of developing dementia within five years.
Maintains Non-Verbal Reasoning and Fluid Intelligence
The results also showed those who took part in adult education classes kept up their non-verbal reasoning and fluid intelligence. The latter refers to the ability to adapt and deal with new information.
Researchers weren’t surprised because fluid intelligence kicks in typically when you need to explore and solve problems in a new setting. However, reaction time and visuospatial memory were not impacted by the classes.
More research is needed, of course, especially since there was concern that these results could be due to reverse causation. This means that someone in the pre-symptomatic stages of cognitive decline would be less inclined to attend classes.
The scientist didn’t believe this was the case because those with dementia normally have other health issues. What’s more, even after the researchers accounted for participants with a history of diabetes, elevated blood fats, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and mental illness, the results were similar. In other words, participants who were developing dementia were not prevented from following adult education because of symptoms of these known co-morbidities. As a result, the researchers concluded that “non-participation in these classes should be considered a risk factor for dementia.”
The Awakening From Alzheimer’s Team
Effects of adult education on cognitive function and risk of dementia in older adults: a longitudinal analysis Front Aging Neurosci 2023