By Emily Woodruff
The studies on brain training using computer games and exercising your brain with activities like crosswords have mixed reviews. But a new study drops evidence in the bucket in favor of, in the words of the study authors, “intellectual activities”—things like reading books, magazines and newspapers; playing card games or board games; and betting on horse races.
Scientists in Hong Kong looked at almost 15,600 people over the age of 65, tracking their intellectual activities for five years. No one had a dementia diagnosis at the beginning of the study, and around 1,350 had one at the end. Researchers asked participants what kind of intellectual activities they engaged in at the start of the study and in follow-up interviews.
They found that those who reported participating in activities that exercised the brain had a lower incidence of dementia than those who said they did them less often or not at all, even when they excluded those who developed dementia three years or less into the study and those whose physical health might have impacted dementia risk.
“This study provides evidence that late-life participation in intellectual activities is independently associated with a lower risk of dementia in older adults,” wrote the study authors. “Given the growing older population worldwide, promoting regular engagement in intellectual activities might help delay or prevent dementia.”
In an accompanying editorial, Harvard-affiliated experts Dr. Deborah Blacker and Jennifer Weuve noted that it could be lifelong participation in these activities that lower the risk, rather than just participation during old age. “There is still a strong possibility that the salient factor is not late-life cognitive activity, but lifelong cognitive activity, because the two are probably highly correlated,” they wrote.
There are certainly limits to the study, since it’s observational rather than a randomized clinical trial. The study doesn’t prove that reading books or playing games actually prevents dementia. But still, it probably can’t hurt, they said. “Chosen well, such activities improve quality of life, and they might reduce our risk of dementia, too,” wrote Blacker and Weuve.
And you need not purchase expensive software or pay a monthly fee to play brain games on your iPhone, either.
“There is no evidence that such activities offer more benefit than a book from the public library, a game of chess in the local park, a penny-ante poker game, or a wide variety of other highly cognitive but close-to-free activities,” the editorial stated.
This study was published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.