Prior studies have suggested that participation in activities that stimulate thought, new ideas, new memories, and that challenge us mentally may encourage brain health as we age and possibly reduce risk of cognitive impairment and dementia. The mechanisms underlying this possible effect are not currently well understood.
At Alzheimer's Association International Conference® 2014 (AAIC® 2014) in Copenhagen., Stephanie Schultz, BSc, and colleagues at the Wisconsin Alzheimer's Institute and the Wisconsin Alzheimer's Disease Research Center reported on the results of a study of 329 cognitively normal middle-aged adults (mean age=60.3 years, 69% women) enrolled in the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer's Prevention. Forty percent of the participants were positive for the APOe4 gene and 74 percent had a parental family history of Alzheimer's, both of which are known to increase the risk for developing Alzheimer's.
These at-risk adults reported their current engagement in cognitively-stimulating activities using the Cognitive Activity Scale (CAS), underwent MRI brain imaging, and completed a comprehensive battery of neurocognitive tests. The CAS consists of 10 items that ask individuals how often they participate in various cognitive activities, such as reading books and going to museums. The scientists focused on CAS-Games, which is a single item on the scale that asks participants how often they play games such as cards, checkers, crosswords or other puzzles.
After controlling for factors known to influence brain volume and cognitive test scores, such as age and gender, the researchers found that a higher self-reported frequency of game playing was significantly associated with greater brain volume in several regions involved in Alzheimer's disease (such as the hippocampus) and with higher cognitive test scores on memory and executive function.
"Our findings suggest that, for some individuals, engagement in cognitively stimulating activities, especially those involving games such as puzzles and cards, might be a useful approach for preserving brain structures and cognitive functions that are vulnerable to Alzheimer's disease," said Schultz. "More detailed studies of specific cognitive activities, including games, would help further our understanding of how an active, healthy lifestyle may help delay the development of Alzheimer's."