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Mental activity linked to younger brain structure with aging

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Staying mentally active with aging linked to healthier brain.

Playing games, reading, writing or any mental activity like doing puzzles could keep the brain healthy as we age, according to findings from radiologists. New research using high technology brain imaging shows a link between healthy, younger white matter in the brain when we stay mentally engaged.

Konstantinos Arfanakis and colleagues, from Rush University Medical Center and Illinois Institute of Technology presented findings at the 98th scientific assembly and annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) in Chicago, showing ‘simple activities’ like reading the newspaper, writing, a trip to the library or playing games are all valuable ways to keep the brain healthier.

Researchers used specialized MRI scans known as DTI or diffusion tensor imaging to study how water molecules travel across different regions of the brain.

Past studies have suggested engaging the brain during aging can keep us mentally sharp, but few studies actually looked at what physically happens in the brain when we continue to stay mentally active as we get older.

Arfanakis explained in a press release how DTI imaging measures the difference in the way water molecules travel in the brain, or the way they diffuse.

Healthy brains have higher diffusion rates. "Lower diffusion anisotropy values are consistent with aging," says Arfanakis.

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The study included adults whose average age was 81 who were part of the Rush Memory and Aging Project designed to look at risks for Alzheimer’s disease. None of the participants had cognitive impairment from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, based on clinical assessment.

The participants rated how often they played games, read a newspaper, wrote a letter, or played cards of board games in the past year, using a scale of 1 to 5.

The researchers found a positive link between diffusion values and more mental activity that Arfanakis related to ‘positive outcomes’ from keeping the brain occupied in later life.

He says the studies show brains of older people who engage in frequent mental activities are similar to those of younger people.

Healthy older brains show less deterioration in structures that begin to show less diffusion at age 30; specifically white matter that is rich in veins and capillaries and responsible for relaying information from one brain area to another.

The study doesn’t show mental activity definitely keeps the brain younger, but it shows a link. The researchers will continue to follow the study participants to find out if keeping mentally active with aging keeps brain structure younger.

Radiological Society of North America
November 25, 2012

Image credit: Morguefile