Information about Staying Mentally Active and Dementia Risk

Staying mentally active by engaging in activities that challenge and stimulate the mind may be a key factor in maintaining memory and other cognitive skills. A study of 469 healthy people over age 75, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, found that those who frequently engaged in leisure activities such as reading, playing board games, playing a musical instrument, or dancing were less likely to have developed dementia five or more years later.

Dancing combines physical and mental activity (remembering dance steps and coordinating them with a partner's steps) and was associated with a 76 percent reduction in dementia. In addition, research from the Rush Memory and Aging Project found that cognitively active elderly people (average age 80) were 2.6 times less likely to develop dementia than were those who did not engage in mentally stimulating activities.

Recent research from the Mayo Clinic Population-Based Study of Aging seemed to confirm the value of mental activities: Out of 1,321 participants, those who engaged in reading, crafts, social events, or other activities were less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment.

Additionally, people who watched fewer than seven hours of television a day were less likely to suffer memory loss than those who watched more than seven hours a day.

Cognitive training, which consists of a variety of exercises to help improve attention span, thinking before acting, visual and auditory processing, listening, and reading, also appears to help maintain or improve memory and other cognitive skills. A study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people age 65 or older who were given 10 sessions of cognitive training showed modestly improved mental functioning up to five years later.

As part of the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study, nearly 3,000 cognitively normal older people were given training in memory, reasoning, or improving their information processing speed or were assigned to a control group that received no training. About 60 percent of the participants also received booster training sessions at 11 and 35 months.

After five years, the men and women who had participated in the cognitive training still performed better in their area of training than individuals in the control group. The greatest benefits were seen among the participants who were trained in reasoning and speed of processing and who had also received the booster training.

Publication Review By: Peter V. Rabins, M.D., M.P.H.

Published: 08 Mar 2011

Last Modified: 28 Jan 2015