Researchers from Rush University Medical Center and Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago have found that mental activities such as playing games, reading, and writing can help keep the brain healthy as we age. Earlier research has found that staying mentally active and engaging in cognitive activities can help preserve and maintain mental sharpness, but this new research also suggests that such things can also help preserve the brain's structural integrity.
"Reading the newspaper, writing letters, visiting a library, attending a play or playing games, such as chess or checkers, are all simple activities that can contribute to a healthier brain," explained the study's lead author, Dr. Konstantinos Arfanakis.
Using brain imaging, researchers were able to look at how water molecules move through the brain. This movement can be affected by factors such as age, disease, and injury. "In healthy white matter tissue, water can't move as much in directions perpendicular to the nerve fibers," said Arfanakis. "But if, for example, you have lower neuronal density or less myelin, then the water has more freedom to move perpendicular to the fibers, so you would have reduced diffusion anisotropy. Lower diffusion anisotropy values are consistent with aging."
Participants in the study included 152 elderly adults who were part of a large-scale study on Alzheimer's disease risk factors. They were asked how often they participated in activities such as writing letters, reading newspapers, and playing board games. They also underwent brain MRI scans. Participants who reported higher cognitive activity levels were found to have higher diffusion anisotropy values in the brain.
"Several areas throughout the brain, including regions quite important to cognition, showed higher microstructural integrity with more frequent cognitive activity in late life," Dr. Arfanakis said. "Keeping the brain occupied late in life has positive outcomes."
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