Research has shown that staying physically and mentally active helps maintain thinking skills and delay dementia. A new study suggests that these benefits may be different for men and women. The study was published in the July 20, 2022, online edition of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
The study looked at the effects of physical and mental activities such as reading, attending classes, playing cards or games on cognitive reserve in the areas of speed of thinking and memory. Cognitive reserve is a buffer that exists when people have strong thinking abilities, even when their brains show signs of cognitive impairment and major changes associated with dementia.
\”We found that more physical activity was associated with faster thinking in women, but not in men,\” says study author Judy Pa, PhD, from the University of California, San Diego. \”Participation in mental activity is associated with greater reserves of thought speed in both men and women.\”
More physical activity was not associated with memory reserve in men or women.
The study included 758 people with an average age of 76 years. Some had no problems with thinking or memory, some had mild cognitive impairment, and some had dementia. Participants underwent brain scans and passed tests on speed of thought and memory. To calculate cognitive reserve, the results of people\’s thinking tests were compared to changes in the brain associated with dementia, such as the total volume of the hippocampus, a major brain region affected by Alzheimer\’s disease.
People were also asked about their usual weekly physical activity. With regard to mental activities, they were asked whether they had participated in three activities in the past 13 months: read magazines, newspapers, or books; come to class; and playing cards, games or bingo. They were given one point for each activity for a maximum of three points.
For mental activity, participants scored an average of 1.4 points. In terms of physical activity, participants averaged at least 15 minutes per week of activities that raise the heart rate, such as brisk walking and bicycling.
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Pa said that each additional mental activity in which people participated was commensurate with the speed at which people under the age of 13 demonstrated their thinking skills: 17 years for men and 10 years for women.
\”Since we have almost no effective treatment for Alzheimer\’s disease, prevention is very important. An ounce of prevention is worth an ounce of cure,\” Pa said. \”Knowing that people can improve their cognitive reserves by taking simple steps like attending classes at a community center, playing bingo with their friends, or spending more time walking or gardening.\”
Pa said that based on the effect size seen in the study, doubling the amount of physical activity would equate to about 2.75 years younger when it comes to how quickly women process their thinking skills.
The researchers also examined whether the association between physical and mental activity and cognitive performance was affected by a gene associated with the highest risk of developing Alzheimer\’s, called APOE E4. They found that the presence of this gene in females modulates the effect of favorable relationships between physical and mental activity and cognitive stock.
Research does not prove that physical and mental activity helps improve cognitive reserve. It just shows the union.
One limitation of the study was that people self-reported their physical and mental activity, so that they could not remember precisely. In addition, the study did not measure structural and social factors that affect knowledge reserves, such as education.
This study was supported by the National Institute on Aging and the National Center for the Advancement of Transnational Sciences.