Intellectual Stimulation

If ever there was a reason to turn off the sitcom reruns and read a book, it's this: there's a connection between how much you use your brain and how well it performs as you age. Over time, people who challenge their minds maintain a greater degree of memory resiliency than people who are mentally disengaged.

The MacArthur study found that the strongest predictor of mental capacity over the years was level of education. Don't worry if you don't have a doctoral degree; most experts think it's not the years of formal education per se that benefit memory but rather the habit of being inquisitive and engaged in learning new things. A high level of education might help in this regard by establishing a habit of reading regularly and doing other things to challenge yourself intellectually.

We believe that intellectual enrichment and learning promote physiological and structural changes in the brain, ultimately leading to increased synaptic density and neuronal interconnection. Remember that neuronal connections are critical for the formation of memories. So the "educated brain" may possess more of these pathways and, therefore, a larger anatomical infrastructure to support learning and memory.

A well-educated brain can more effectively withstand age-related neuronal loss than a poorly educated brain. This added resiliency forms the basis for the concept of cognitive reserve, which is used to explain the finding that people with high baseline intelligence are less likely to be diagnosed with dementia than people with lower baseline intelligence.

When patients ask what sorts of things they can do to maintain mental activity, I advise them to identify ideas and issues that pique their curiosity, that engage and excite them, that challenge them to learn. Travel, theater, community service, a book group, a new hobby or sport, adult education, designing a new house, French cooking, learning a musical instrument, local politics, karate—whatever it is for you.

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