Science spends a lot of time investigating what causes mental decline as we age, and not much on what things might prevent it. Now the health benefits of exercise appear to include keeping your mind sharp as well as your body fit.
Work appearing in the June 9, 2009 issue of Neurology is some of the first to look what factors might help you hold on to your mental function.
The exciting new study found older people who retained their cognitive function had a unique profile.
They had at least a high school education and 9th grade literacy level. They exercised moderately (or vigorously if they were in shape) at least once a week and they didn't smoke or live alone or if they did they were also still active outside the home.
The work involved examining 2,500 subjects, both men and women aged 70 to 79 who were living in either in Memphis, TN or Pittsburgh, PA and taking part in the Health, Aging and Body Composition study. The cognitive skills of the subjects were tested at the beginning of the eight year study, and then again in years 3, 5 and 8.
As the researchers expected, many of the participants showed cognitive decline as the study progressed - about 53% had minor cognitive decline and 16% experienced major cognitive decline. About 30% of the subjects showed no cognitive decline. Unexpectedly, a few had even improved their scores.
The researchers wondered what made the difference in those who experienced cognitive decline compared to the subjects who didn't.
The answers were quite eye opening.
Exercisers who did either light or vigorous workouts once a week were 30% more likely to hold on to cognitive function than those who didn't workout.
Education also played a part. Those who had a high school education were almost three times as likely to retain function than those who hadn't graduated from high school. Literacy levels, of 9th grade or better, made a subject nearly five times as likely to avoid decline as those with lower levels of literacy.
Nonsmokers were twice as likely to stay sharp. Seniors who continue to work (or volunteer) as well as those who didn't live alone were 24% more likely to hold on to cognitive functioning. There was no effect on cognitive skills linked to conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure.
Many people think becoming senile as you age is unavoidable and while one in four older adults experiences some form of cognitive decline this isn't a part of healthy aging.
What this work is telling us is that you can keep your mind sharp as you age but you need to plan now to do so.
It's important to challenge your brain - give it a workout by taking up different things, enjoying hobbies and pursuing interests.
There's no one mental exercise that's shown itself so much better than any other - anything that has your mind working is a good choice.
But that's not all you should be doing.
Being mentally active works best when you're living well - eating healthy, being active as much as you can, avoiding tobacco and other unhealthy substances while keeping those appointments for regular medical checkups and screenings.
"The take-home message from the study is, you can maintain your cognitive function in late life," explains study author Alexandra Fiocco, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco.
"People are afraid they will experience cognitive decline as they age. But not everyone declines."
In fact, this work raises the very real possibility that cognitive decline might even be preventable with the health benefits of exercise being wider than ever thought before.Health Benefits of Exercise Include Keeping Your Mind Sharp