Can reading, puzzles, and similar activities prevent dementia?

Can reading, puzzles, and similar activities prevent dementia?

The Power of Cognitive Activities: Building a Library for Brain Health

Can reading and similar activities help stave off dementia? Image credit: Simone Wave/Stocksy

Millions of people around the world live with dementia, a chronic neurodegenerative condition that affects memory and thinking abilities. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. While some treatments exist to help manage the symptoms of dementia, there is currently no cure for the condition. However, recent research suggests that engaging in cognitively stimulating activities can significantly reduce the risk of developing dementia and improve cognitive health.

A study published in Neurology in 2021 found that high levels of cognitive activity, such as reading, playing games, and writing letters, can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease by 5 years among those aged 80 years and over. Another study published in PNAS in 2022 discovered that spending more time in cognitively active tasks, such as using a computer, is linked to a reduced risk of dementia, while more time spent in cognitively passive activities, such as watching TV, is linked to increased dementia risk. Additionally, a study from JAMA Open, published in July 2023, revealed that frequently engaging in brain-challenging activities like journaling, playing chess, and solving crossword puzzles was associated with a lower risk of developing dementia among older adults.

To understand more about these associations, Medical News Today spoke with experts in the field who provided insights into how cognitively stimulating activities reduce dementia risk and improve cognition, as well as other factors that contribute to dementia risk.

Engaging activities boost cognitive reserve

According to Dr. Joyce Gomes-Osman, vice president of interventional therapy at Linus Health and a voluntary assistant professor of neurology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, cognitively stimulating activities like reading and crossword puzzles reduce dementia risk and boost cognition by increasing the cognitive reserve. She likens the cognitive reserve to the size of one’s mental library.

“Each thing we learn and know is like a book on a shelf. As new books are added, the library grows bigger and bigger. When your library is extensive, even if many books are checked out, there will still be plenty of other books on the shelves, serving as alternatives and keeping the library functioning well,” she explained.

Cognitive reserve is developed over a lifetime through education and challenging life experiences. A study published in Neurology in 2022 investigated how childhood cognitive skills, education attainment, and leisure activities affected cognitive reserve. The researchers found that people with higher levels of education, engagement in multiple leisure activities, and occupations requiring higher cognitive skills tended to have greater cognitive reserve. Those with higher reading abilities also experienced slower cognitive decline.

“Safely challenging our cognitive abilities, as long as it doesn’t lead to frustration, is healthy and will even improve our confidence and sense of independence. Though a 70-year-old may not have the cognition they had at age 20, challenging the mind could help them feel more like they did at age 50,” said Dr. Robert Wiggins, a neurologist with Novant Health.

‘Mental exercises’ engage multiple parts of the brain

Dr. David Hunter, an assistant professor of neurology with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, emphasizes the importance of engaging in “mental exercises” that involve multiple parts of the brain. These exercises can include reading, puzzles, art, conversation, games, and work. However, he points out that sitting around watching TV does not count as a mental exercise.

For patients with advanced dementia who can no longer participate in their former hobbies, alternatives such as coloring books, word searches, music, and simple conversation can still provide cognitive stimulation.

The limits of cognitive reserve

While cognitive reserve plays an important role in preserving thinking skills, experts caution that there are limits to how much cognitive exercises alone can boost this reserve. According to Dr. Raphael Wald, a board-certified neuropsychologist, once dementia sets in, cognitive tasks like crossword puzzles cannot overcome the degenerative process entirely. However, they may slow down the progression to some extent.

Dr. Karen D. Lincoln, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, points out that while puzzles and other activities are important for stimulating the brain, they do not necessarily improve cognitive abilities or lower dementia risk on their own. The overall vascular health of the individual should also be considered.

Dr. Gomes-Osman agrees that relying solely on intellectually stimulating activities is insufficient for reducing dementia risk. The most significant improvements in thinking abilities and dementia risk reduction occur when multiple healthy behaviors, including physical exercise, proper nutrition, and social engagement, are targeted.

12 modifiable risk factors for dementia

The Lancet Commission’s 2020 report on dementia prevention, intervention, and care highlights 12 modifiable risk factors that account for 40% of dementia cases. These factors include a person’s level of education, social contact, hearing impairment, exercise routine, depression symptoms, alcohol use, midlife obesity, exposure to air pollution, smoking habits, head injuries, hypertension, and diabetes.

Acting on these factors can reduce dementia risk by reducing neuropathological damage, increasing and maintaining cognitive reserve, or both. If these actions were universally adopted, over a third of dementia cases could be prevented.

Taking action to reduce dementia risk

Dr. Gomes-Osman advises that even those experiencing memory loss can improve their brain health by learning something new. Challenging the mind with new experiences and seeing new things can help boost memory, attention, thinking abilities, and overall quality of life. The brain responds well to novelty, so engaging in activities that are not too easy or too hard is key.

Additionally, changing the location where enjoyable activities are done, such as going for a walk in a different place or taking a different route to work, can provide new stimuli and improve brain health.

In conclusion, engaging in cognitively stimulating activities, building cognitive reserve, and adopting a multifaceted approach that includes physical exercise, social engagement, and overall healthy behaviors can significantly reduce the risk of dementia and improve cognitive health. By creating a rich mental library and maintaining a healthy brain, individuals can increase their chances of preserving their thinking skills and living a fulfilling life.