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Want to stay mentally healthy in older age? Stimulate your brain in early life

Posted on April 20th 2017

Stimulating the brain by taking on leadership roles at work or staying on in education helps people stay mentally healthy in later life, according to new research.

Led by the University of Exeter and published in the journal PLOS Medicine, the large-scale study used data from more than 2,000 mentally fit people over the age of 65, and examined the theory that experiences in early or mid-life which challenge the brain make people more resilient to changes resulting from age or illness – they have higher 'cognitive reserve'.

The study found that people with higher levels of reserve are more likely to stay mentally fit for longer, making the brain more resilient to illnesses such as dementia.

The research team included collaborators from the universities of Bangor, Newcastle and Cambridge.

Linda Clare, Professor of Clinical Psychology of Aging and Dementia at the University of Exeter, who is supported by PenCLAHRC, said:

“Losing mental ability is not inevitable in later life. We know that we can all take action to increase our chances of maintaining our own mental health, through healthy living and engaging in stimulating activities. It’s important that we understand how and why this occurs, so we can give people meaningful and effective measures to take control of living full and active lives into older age."

Professor Clare went on to say:

“People who engage in stimulating activity which stretches the brain, challenging it to use different strategies that exercise a variety of networks, have higher 'cognitive reserve'. This builds a buffer in the brain, making it more resilient. It means signs of decline only become evident at a higher threshold of illness or decay than when this buffer is absent.”

The research team used data from 2,315 mentally fit participants aged over 65 years who took part in the first wave of interviews for the Cognitive Function and Ageing Study Wales (CFAS Wales) - a longitudinal study looking at health and cognitive function in older people. 

They analysed whether a healthy lifestyle was associated with better performance on a mental ability test. They found that a healthy diet, more physical activity, more social and mentally stimulating activity and moderate alcohol consumption all seemed to boost cognitive performance.

The paper, Potentially modifiable lifestyle factors, cognitive reserve, and cognitive function in later life: A cross-sectional study, is available to read online on the PLOS Medicine website

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