Menus Subscribe Search

Findings

intelligence-dementia

A Lifetime of Intellectual Stimulation Staves Off Dementia

• June 23, 2014 • 1:00 PM

(Photo: Robert Kneschke/Shutterstock)

Turning to brainy pursuits in later years also helps delay the onset of the dreaded condition, according to a new study.

As we age, “Am I losing my mind?” gradually morphs from a poignant Steven Sondheim lyric into a genuine fear. For most of us, avoiding cognitive impairment—or at least holding it off as long as possible—eventually becomes a high-priority concern.

So what can we do to keep sharp as we grow older? A just-released study from the Mayo Clinic finds the best medicine is living a life of the mind.

If, for whatever reason, that hasn’t been true for you (or an aging loved one), don’t despair: Turning to more cerebral leisure pursuits late in life can also help in a big way. But a good education and an intellectually demanding career seem to provide uniquely powerful protection.

“Lifetime intellectual enrichment might delay the onset of cognitive impairment and be used as a successful preventative intervention to reduce the impending dementia epidemic,” writes a research team led by Mayo Clinic radiologist Prashanthi Vemuri. Its study is published in the journal JAMA Neurology.

“Lifetime intellectual enrichment might delay the onset of cognitive impairment and be used as a successful preventative intervention to reduce the impending dementia epidemic.”

Vemuri and her colleagues are talking about the public-health challenges that will inevitably arise as the American population ages. Dementia is not only emotionally devastating; it’s also economically draining, both for families and society as a whole.

With this in mind, they decided to measure the impact of two different measures of intellectual enrichment on cognitive decline: One based on educational attainment and occupation, and another based on mid- to late-life cognitive activity.

Their subjects were 1,995 elderly Minnesota residents who took part in the Mayo Clinic Study of Aging. The participants were 70 to 89 years old when they enrolled in the study in October 2004; 27 percent of them carried the APOE4 gene variant, which increases one’s risk for developing late-onset Alzheimer’s.

Participants first disclosed the number of years of schooling they completed, and described their primary occupation. “The same form was used to record their cognitive activities during the past 12 months (late life) and cognitive activities at 50 to 65 years of age (midlife),” the researchers write.

Examples of activities the researchers considered cognitively stimulating (if performed at least three times per week) included reading books and magazines, playing games and music, and participating in arts and crafts.

All participants then underwent a battery of neuropsychological tests designed to measure a variety of cognitive skills, including executive functioning, language, and memory.

“Higher levels of educational, occupational, and cognitive activity are independently associated with a lower risk of dementia,” they report. Among people with the APOE4 variant, who are at relatively high risk for dementia, the difference is huge: The onset of cognitive impairment was delayed, on average, by more than eight and one-half years for people who ranked in the top 25 percent in terms of lifetime intellectual enrichment, compared to those in the bottom 25 percent.

Looking at specific methods of intellectual enrichment, the researchers report that the effect of higher education is particularly pronounced.”We found that the number of years of protection provided by higher educational attainment (keeping cognitive activity constant) is at least five years, irrespective of sex and APOE4 carrier status,” Vemuri and her colleagues write.

The researchers found that beefing up one’s intellectual engagement in mid-life has a greater impact in staving off cognitive impairment among those with lower education levels, who were at higher risk. That makes intuitive sense: They had more ground to make up. And while they didn’t get to the protective level of their better-educated counterparts, their efforts did pay off.

“The years of protection provided by high mid/late-life cognitive activity … was at least 3.2 years for APOE4 carriers, and 7.3 years for non-carriers,” the researchers report.

These results lead to a clear policy recommendation. “Although the optimal intervention time may be intellectual enrichment in early life,” Vemuri and her colleagues write, “there are substantial benefits of using a public health campaign by providing intellectual enrichment to midlife to late-life individuals.”

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 22 • 4:00 PM

Can Meditation Really Slow Aging?

Is there real science in the spiritualism of meditation? Jo Marchant meets a Nobel Prize-winner who thinks so.



July 22 • 2:00 PM

The Alabama Judge Who Refuses to Let Desegregation Orders Go Ignored

A federal judge in Alabama says a local school board has failed to meet legal mandate to integrate.


July 22 • 12:00 PM

On the Destinations of Species

It’s almost always easier to cross international borders if you’re something other than human.


July 22 • 10:51 AM

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.


July 22 • 10:47 AM

Irrational Choice Theory: The LeBron James Migration From Miami to Cleveland

Return migrants to Cleveland have been coming home in large numbers for quite some time. It makes perfect sense.


July 22 • 9:32 AM

This Time, Scalia Was Right

President Obama’s recess appointments were wrong and, worse, dangerous.


July 22 • 8:00 AM

On Vegas Strip, Blackjack Rule Change Is Sleight of Hand

Casino operators are changing blackjack payouts to give the house an even greater advantage. Is this a sign that Vegas is on its way back from the recession, or that the Strip’s biggest players are trying to squeeze some more cash out of visitors before the well runs dry?


July 22 • 6:00 AM

Label Me Confused

How the words on a bag of food create more questions than answers.


July 22 • 5:07 AM

Doubly Victimized: The Shocking Prevalence of Violence Against Homeless Women

An especially vulnerable population is surveyed by researchers.


July 22 • 4:00 AM

New Evidence That Blacks Are Aging Faster Than Whites

A large study finds American blacks are, biologically, three years older than their white chronological counterparts.



July 21 • 4:00 PM

Do You Have to Learn How to Get High?

All drugs are socially constructed.


July 21 • 2:14 PM

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.


July 21 • 2:00 PM

Why Are Obstetricians Among the Top Billers for Group Psychotherapy in Illinois?

Illinois leads the country in group psychotherapy sessions in Medicare, and some top billers aren’t mental health specialists. The state’s Medicaid program has cracked down, but federal officials have not.



July 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, MacArthur Genius?

Noah Davis talks to Yoky Matsuoka about youth tennis, wanting to be an airhead, and what it’s like to win a Genius Grant.


July 21 • 11:23 AM

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?


July 21 • 10:00 AM

How Small-D Democratic Should Our Political Parties Be?

We need to decide how primaries should work in this country before they get completely out of hand and the voters are left out entirely.


July 21 • 8:00 AM

No, Walking on All 4 Limbs Is Not a Sign of Human ‘Devolution’

New quantitative analysis reveals that people with Uner Tan Syndrome don’t actually walk like primates at all.


July 21 • 6:00 AM

Sequenced in the U.S.A.: A Desperate Town Hands Over Its DNA

The new American economy in three tablespoons of blood, a Walmart gift card, and a former mill town’s DNA.


July 21 • 5:00 AM

Celebrating Independence: Scenes From 59 Days Around the World

While national identities are often used to separate people, a husband-and-wife Facebook photography project aims to build connections.


July 21 • 4:00 AM

Be a Better Person: Take a Walk in the Park

New research from France finds strangers are more helpful if they’ve just strolled through a natural environment.



July 18 • 4:00 PM

The Litany of Problems With the Pentagon’s Effort to Recover MIAs

A draft inspector general report found that the mission lacks basic metrics for how to do the job—and when to end it.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?

No, Walking on All 4 Limbs Is Not a Sign of Human ‘Devolution’

New quantitative analysis reveals that people with Uner Tan Syndrome don't actually walk like primates at all.

Why Didn’t California’s Handheld Phone Ban Reduce Motor Accidents?

Are handheld cell phones as dangerous as they have been made out to be?

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.