"Use it or lose it" is the wisdom received in cognitive ability. But is there any truth in this old sound? Our latest study suggests that it depends on how much you "" have to start.
Previous observational studies that have looked at the effect of mentally stimulating activities, such as puzzles, on cognitive ability have largely supported the "use or loss" assumption. However, these studies have often been based on snapshots in time – transitional studies of this name. To find out if there is a real connection between mental engagement for life and cognitive abilities in old age, you need to track people's habits and mental abilities over a lifetime.
For our study, reported in The BMJ, we wanted to know if mental engagement protects against cognitive decline, or if those with cognitive advantage take more attention, giving the impression that This type of behavior is responsible for their higher abilities. To answer these questions, we needed to work closely with participants to study and measure their intellectual abilities over time and compare their abilities to their performance during their early lives.
Scotland is unique because in 1947 almost all 11 year olds took the same mental ability test. These records were kept by the Scottish Council for Research in Education and in 1998 we contacted the surviving people who took the test.
We proved that people lived independently without dementia for up to five occasions over 15 years. Demographic, clinical, questionnaire and psychological data were recorded in each assessment and related to changes in performance on oral tests and repetitive thinking speed tests.
Our results are notable because they include childhood intelligence data from a rare historical survey. Mental capacity levels, late in life, have been shown to be strongly linked to current levels of problem-solving engagement.
Our study was able to account for childhood information and education and revealed that the rate of decline in cognition was not late different from people who reported different levels of engagement. However, levels of engagement were related to the performance at access, aged 64.
Childhood intelligence was linked to intellectual engagement, which raised the question: are more informed people more engaged, or are they more intelligent because they engage? If the latter was really late then we would expect some influence on the rate of decline.
We have shown that intellectual engagement in this group of people without dementia is associated with later cognitive decline rates. But engagement is linked to intellectual gains from childhood up to middle-aged age when we first experimented. In other words, making puzzles and other intellectuals over a lifetime improves your IQ, so that when the inevitable cognitive decline is set later, you have a higher point to start. The decline rate is the same for everyone, regardless of engagement levels.
At present, we can predict how intellectual life-long engagement contributes to the protection of falling below some intellectual threshold where you would be impaired. This is achieved by starting from a higher point.
Our findings are consistent with similar studies that followed older people aged 50. We have identified problem solving is very important. This suggests that interventions to promote strengths to aging should include problem-solving elements, such as reading complex novels, solving crossword puzzles and practicing a musical instrument.
Roger Staff, Senior Honorary Lecturer in Aging, University of Aberdeen; Lawrence Whalley, Emeritus Professor of Mental Health, University of Aberdeen, and Michael Hogan, Senior Lecturer, Psychology, National University of Ireland Galway
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