Menus Subscribe Search

Findings

intelligence-dementia

(Photo: Robert Kneschke/Shutterstock)

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 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


Follow us


Subscribe Now

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

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