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Being a bookworm boosts your brainpower into old age

She may look like she's on vacation but she's actually busy staving off cognitive decline.
She may look like she's on vacation but she's actually busy staving off cognitive decline.Jordan Siemens / Getty Images

Lifelong bookworms, if you would please lift your noses from your books for one minute. A new study has found that engaging in brain-stimulating activities – especially reading or writing, but also brain-taxing pursuits like chess – helps to stave off cognitive decline.

Even reading this article, right now, will help boost the brainpower of your future, elderly self. (You're welcome!)

A new study, just published in the journal Neurology, tested 294 people on their cognitive abilities – things like memory, or clear thinking – every year for six years before their deaths at the average age of 89. They were also asked to remember how frequently over the course of their lives, since childhood, they took part in brain-boosting activities such as reading a newspaper or a book, writing a letter to a friend, playing games like chess or going to a museum or the theater.

“We’re looking to figure out how much of your routine, day-to-day activities are involved in things we think are basically designed to acquire new information, or to process information you already had,” explains Robert Wilson, lead author of the study and senior neuropsychologist at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center.

The study participants were part of the Rush Memory and Aging Process. They'd agreed to donate their brains after they died to be used in studies like this one. After their deaths, researchers examined their brains for the physical evidence of dementia – plaques, tangles, lesions and nerve cells with abnormal aggregates of protein, called Lewy bodies.

They found that the people who reported doing reading, writing and other mentally stimulating activities throughout their lives also did better on the memory tests. But what’s interesting is that some of the people who regularly read books, or did other brain-stretching activities, did not show outward symptoms of Alzheimer's, even if their brains showed physical signs of the disease. (Some of them did show symptoms of dementia, but the rate of cognitive decline was slower in people who did more of these mentally stimulating activities.)

In other words, the more you read and write, the better off your mind will be as you get older, even if your brain itself shows signs of dementia.

“The general feeling is that the pathology is largely driven by genetic factors that we don’t fully understand,” Wilson says. “But a lot of old people dying with these pathologies don’t show the memory and thinking problems. So we do think that lifestyle in general, and cognitive activity in particular, sort of determines how vulnerable you are to the effects of these pathologies.”

Even if you didn't have a nerdy childhood, it's not too late to start. The research found that in people who reported frequently stretching their brain power later in life, the rate of cognitive decline was lowered by 32 percent when compared with people who reported only average amounts of mental activity. But for people who rarely read or wrote or did anything mentally taxing, the rate of cognitive decline was 48 percent faster than average.

Other studies have shown similar findings, but this research's comprehensive study design helps add to what we know about dementia, says Rachelle Doody, the director of the Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Disorders Center at Baylor College of Medicine.

“It’s a topic of great interest -- that is, whether we have the capacity as humans to build our cognitive reserve in order to resist pathological processes,” says Doody, who wasn't involved in this research.

“The way we stimulate the brains of our children and continue to stimulate our brains over our lifespan makes a difference,” she adds as a sort of "bottom line" message here for non-researchers. “And the difference that it makes is that we may still get diseases of the brain, but that our ability to maintain our cognitive performance will be better if we had the benefit of the brain stimulation.”