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Use It Not to Lose It

By Kate Jackson

It's never too late for older adults to engage in intellectual activities that can help reduce their risk of developing dementia, and the range of options are broader than many suspect. Surprisingly, even gambling may bolster brain health.

For a median period of five years, a population-based study followed 15,582 community-living Chinese individuals 65 years of age or older at baseline—with a median age of 74 years—none of whom had dementia at the beginning of the study. The study, Association of Daily Intellectual Activities With Lower Risk of Incident Dementia Among Older Chinese Adults, published in the July 2018 issue of JAMA Psychiatry, aimed to determine whether taking part in intellectual activities, apart from physical exercise, diet, and other healthful lifestyle practices, could lower the risk of dementia years later.

The patients were assessed for age, sex, educational level, physical and psychological illness, depression, smoking habits, social activities, diet, physical activity, mobility, and adequacy of vision and hearing. Slightly more than two-thirds of the participants were women. Among the intellectual activities participants may have engaged in were reading books, newspapers, and magazines; playing board games, Mahjong, or cards; and even betting on horseracing. Participants self-reported their participation in such activities up to a month before assessment at baseline and in follow-up interviews.

During the five-year median follow-up period, 8.7% of participants developed dementia. According to the researchers, after adjusting for variables, "Active participation in intellectual activities, even late in life, might help delay or prevent dementia in older adults."

Clinicians who encourage their clients to remain intellectually engaged through a variety of enjoyable activities may help safeguard their cognitive abilities and slow or even prevent decline.

— Kate Jackson is editor of Today's Geriatric Medicine.