Problem solving ‘does not protect against mental decline’

Written by Sharon Salt, Editor

The well-known idea of ‘use it or lose it’ in relation to our brains later in life has been widely accepted. However, researchers have recently indicated that regularly doing problem-solving activities throughout your lifetime does not prevent mental decline later in life.
Previous studies have suggested that mental ability can be improved or maintained by exercising the mind in brain teasers such as Sudoku and crossword puzzles. But there is a lack of historical childhood mental ability data, and the effect of practice on improving test scores has often been overlooked in mental aging studies.

In this latest study, published in The British Medical Journal, researchers set out to examine the association between intellectual engagement and cognitive ability later in life, and determined whether the maintenance of intellectual engagement will offset age-related cognitive decline.

The study looked at 498 volunteers born in 1936 who had taken part in a group intelligence test (The Moray House Test) at the age of 11. The participants were around 64 years old at the start of the study and were recalled for memory and mental processing speed testing up to five-times over a 15-year period.

After taking into account potentially influencing factors, the researchers found that engaging in intellectually stimulating activities on a regular basis was linked to level of mental ability in old age, having the largest association with improving cognitive performance during the course of life.

However, such activities had no effect on the rate of mental decline associated with aging.

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Roger Staff (University of Aberdeen, UK) has suggested that while those who regularly engage in problem-solving puzzles could potentially enhance their mental ability, this does not “protect an individual from decline but imparts a higher starting point from which decline is observed.”

In a requested quote, James Pickett, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Society (London, UK) said: “Of all the diseases in the UK dementia is now the biggest killer, so exploring potential factors which could reduce the risk of developing this devastating condition is fundamental to beating it. Although playing ‘brain games’ such as Sudoku may not prevent dementia, it has been shown that regularly challenging yourself mentally seems to build up the brain’s ability to cope with disease.”

“We know what is good for the heart is good for the head and there are other ways we can reduce our risk of developing dementia by taking steps towards a healthy lifestyle, eating a balanced diet, avoiding smoking and heavy drinking, and exercising regularly.”

“Alzheimer’s Society recently launched the brain game app ‘GameChanger’, which won’t reduce the risk of dementia but through playing it, it can help build an understanding of cognitive changes and the difference between cognitive decline and dementia. Research will beat dementia and eventually the GameChanger project could find people who are showing early signs of cognitive decline and get them involved in studies and trials to hopefully stop them developing dementia,” Pickett concluded.

Sources: Staff RT, Hogan MJ, Williams DS, Whalley LJ. Intellectual engagement and cognitive ability later in life (the ‘use it or lose it’ conjecture): longitudinal, prospective study. BMJ doi:10.1136/bmj.k4925 (2018) (Epub ahead of print);