Dementia, a term for loss of memory and other mental abilities, is common in old age. A new study suggests that one can stay mentally healthy in old age if that person goes to university or takes on leadership roles at work. University of Exeter in the UK led a research using data from over 2,000 people over the age of 65 who were mentally fit.
Experiences in early or mid life challenge the brain hence making people more resilient to changes resulting from age or illness - they have higher “cognitive reserve”. This theory was examined by the researchers.
They found that those who have higher levels of reserve are more likely to stay mentally fit for longer, making the brain more resilient to illnesses such as dementia.
“Losing mental ability is not inevitable in later life. We know that we can all take action to increase our chances of maintaining our own mental health, through healthy living and engaging in stimulating activities,” Linda Clare, Professor at the University of Exeter, said.
“It is important that we understand how and why this occurs, so we can give people meaningful and effective measures to take control of living full and active lives into older age.
“People who engage in stimulating activity which stretches the brain, challenging it to use different strategies that exercise a variety of networks, have higher Cognitive reserve’,” said Clare.
“This builds a buffer in the brain, making it more resilient. It means signs of decline only become evident at a higher threshold of illness or decay than when this buffer is absent,” she said.
On a mental ability test, the researchers analysed whether a healthy lifestyle was associated with better performance.
It was then found that a healthy diet, more physical activity, more social and mentally stimulating activity and moderate alcohol consumption seemed to boost cognitive performance.
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“We found that people with a healthier lifestyle had better scores on tests of mental ability, and this was partly accounted for by their level of cognitive reserve,” said Professor Bob Woods of Bangor University in the UK.
“Our results highlight the important of policies and measures that encourage older people to make changes in their diet, exercise more, and engage in more socially oriented and mentally stimulating activities,” Woods said.
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The study was published in the journal PLOS Medicine.
(With inputs from PTI)