Researchers from Rush University Medical Center, Chicago assessed 107 individuals with an average age of 80, none of whom showed signs of dementia, and gave each of them yearly memory exams for a period of five years. They were also asked how often they read the newspaper, wrote letters, went to the library and played mentally challenging board games such as chess. On analysing the data, the researchers found that as people’s mental abilities declined so did the frequency with which they did mentally challenging tasks such as reading, writing or playing board games. This could, of course, be because with reduced ability people may not enjoy these activities so much anymore. But the researchers also found that they could predict a person’s cognitive functioning by looking at how mentally active they were the year before, which indicates that this is a cause and effect situation – ‘Being mentally active leads to better cognitive health in old age,” said Dr Robert Wilson, lead study author.
Another study by the same team found that the rate of memory decline speeds up as a person gets towards the end of life. The researchers followed the progress of 174 priests, nuns and monks, none of whom had memory problems at the start of the study and all of whom were tested annually to ascertain any changes. They found that at an average of two and a half years before death, participants’ memory and cognitive abilities declined eight to 17 times faster than beforehand. When the researchers assessed the participants’ brains for signs of Alzheimer’s, they found that changes could not explain the faster rate of decline. The researchers say this suggests that natural biological changes occur in the last years before death that somehow hasten cognitive decline.
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