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Rx for the Mind: Mind Games

A new study says playing games and doing puzzles wards off dementia, supporting the use-it-or-lose-it theory.

Excerpt By Serena Gordon
HealthDay Reporter


WEDNESDAY, June 18 (HealthDayNews) -- If you don't use your mind regularly through activities such as reading, doing puzzles or playing a musical instrument, you risk losing some of your cognitive abilities as you age.

That's the message from a new study appearing in the June 19 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Researchers from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City found seniors who participated in mind-stimulating leisure activities had a lower risk of developing the brain disease dementia.

"Subjects whose levels were in the top third of the cognitive activity level had almost a 65 percent reduced risk of dementia," says study author Dr. Joe Verghese, an assistant professor of neurology at Albert Einstein College.

The researchers measured cognitive activity levels by asking 469 people over the age of 75 what leisure activities they participated in, and how often. All of the study participants lived in the Bronx, one of New York City's five boroughs.

Participating in a cognitive-stimulating activity one day a week translated into one point on the cognitive activity level scale.

The researchers asked about a variety of activities, including playing board games or cards, reading, writing for pleasure, playing a musical instrument, doing crossword puzzles, participating in group discussion, dancing, doing housework, walking, swimming, biking, babysitting and participating in group exercise.

The cognitive activities that showed the greatest risk reduction were reading, board games or cards, and playing a musical instrument. Writing and participating in group discussions didn't reduce the risk of dementia. Physical activities, with the exception of dancing, didn't appear to greatly reduce the risk of dementia.

Every year, for an average of five years, the study participants were evaluated. During the study period, 121 study volunteers developed dementia.

By comparing those who developed dementia with those who didn't, the researchers found that for one point on the cognitive activity level scale, there was a 7 percent reduction in the risk of dementia. People in the highest third had a score of 11 points or higher. That means they participated in mind-stimulating activities more than once a day each week. Their risk of developing dementia was 63 percent lower than people who scored in the lowest third of the cognitive activity level scale.

Verghese says the researchers weren't able to include past history of these activities in this study.

One reason people might have scored low on the cognitive activity level scale, according to Verghese, is that they could have the beginnings of dementia, but not show outward signs of the disease. To control for this possibility, Verghese and his colleagues re-examined the data, excluding anyone who developed dementia in the first seven years of the study, and the results still held true.

Dr. Joseph Coyle, who wrote an accompanying editorial, says this study provides a remarkable contrast to more complex dementia research that focuses on the specific changes that occur in the brain as dementia develops. He says after looking at that complexities in some of that research, it's hard to believe that something as simple as playing cards could ward off dementia.

Nevertheless, he says, the results of this study are convincing. "Effortful mental activities may forestall the onset of dementia," says Coyle, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School.

Exactly how it occurs isn't yet known, he says. But "participating in these activities that use the brain may stimulate neurons to work around the damage associated with the early stages of dementia," he says.

So for now, both experts say it's a good idea to engage in activities that stimulate your mind throughout your life.