En español | If your doctor wrote out a prescription for your brain — one designed to guard against the kind of cognitive decline that makes you forget your best friend's name — it could look something like this: "Read books, play games, spend time on the computer, engage in social activities, take on a crafts project. Do a mix of these activities three to five days a week." Or so found a new study published in Neurology.
Researchers at Mayo Clinic asked 2,000 cognitively unimpaired adults who were 70 and older to try one or more of the activities above and keep a daily record. After five years, they discovered that while the risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) was reduced in those who took on a single activity, those who took on more than one cut their risk at a significantly higher rate.
"It's not just about engaging in an activity, it's about mixing it up with two or more,” says study co-author Yonas Geda, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and neurology at Mayo Clinic. “Two activities are better than one, three are better than two, and four are better than three.”
While researchers say the message is that, yes, more is more in this case, there were slight variations in results according to the activities pursued. Using a computer, for instance, was associated with a decreased risk of MCI regardless of when participants got in the habit. As for crafts, those only seemed to reduce the risk of MCI when carried out late in life. Overall, gains were the greatest after the first year of taking on such new habits and practices.
As for why taking on a variety of such activities rather than just one is especially beneficial? Experts say the answer could lie in how such a combination requires you to tap multiple areas of the brain, giving it what amounts to a more rigorous workout.
"In terms of higher function, we divide the brain into five domains: language, attention, memory, sense of direction, and emotional behavior regulation. The more domains you bring into the picture, the better it is for the brain,” says Geda. “When you combine these activities, you have a well-coordinated symphony.”
And a healthier one, at that. People with MCI have a four-fold increased risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer's compared to cognitively healthy adults. Unlike people who experience the kind of regular cognitive decline that happens with normal aging, people with MCI show more significant signs of forgetfulness and judgment.
"Take, for example, making a medical decision,” says Namrata Das, M.D., a researcher at the University of Texas at Dallas’ Center for BrainHealth. “Healthy agers might forget some details, but they can still retain enough information to make an informed decision. Whereas people with MCI are overwhelmed with the information provided and may ask the doctor a lot of questions. And people with Alzheimer's can't follow any instructions and the decision is left to the caregivers.”
To work more potentially brain-saving activities into your own day, pencil them on your calendar to boost the likelihood you'll follow through. Doubling up on healthy habits is OK, too. If you're looking for ways to spend less time alone and make a dent in your reading list, join a book club at your local library. If you need to walk for your overall health, enlist a friend and count the hour as your “social” brain booster.