Write Letters, Play Games, Watch Plays for Healthier, Younger Brain

First Posted: Nov 26, 2012 01:45 AM EST

A new study states that by indulging in mental activities such as reading, writing and playing games keeps your brain younger and can add a few years to life.

According to a study, staying active mentally can preserve structural integrity in the brains of older people. This study was done by Konstantinos Arfanakis, Ph.D. and colleagues from Rush University Medical Center and Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago

Before this, there were studies that revealed a relationship between late-life cognitive activity and better mental acuity.

In this study, the researchers studied the kind of effect late-life cognitive activity might have on the brain's white matter, which is composed of nerve fibers, or axons that transmit information throughout the brain.

"Reading the newspaper, writing letters, visiting library, attending a play or playing games, such as chess or checkers, are all simple activities that can contribute to a healthier brain," Dr. Arfanakis said.

With the help of a Magnetic Resonance Imaging method known as Diffusion Tensor Imaging , they generated data on diffusion anisotropy. This is a measure of how water molecules move through the brain.

In the white matter, diffusion anisotropy takes advantage of the fact that water moves more easily in a direction parallel to the brain's axons and less easily perpendicular to the axons, because it is impeded by structures such as axonal membranes and myelin.

"This difference in the diffusion rates along different directions increases diffusion anisotropy values," Dr. Arfanakis said. "Diffusion anisotropy is higher when more diffusion is happening in one direction compared to others."

Factors like aging, injury and diseases cause a fall in the anisotropy values in the white matter.

"In healthy white matter tissue, water can't move as much in directions perpendicular to the nerve fibers," Dr. Arfanakis said. "But if, for example, you have lower neuronal density or less myelin, then the water has more freedom to move perpendicular to the fibers, so you would have reduced diffusion anisotropy. Lower diffusion anisotropy values are consistent with aging."

For this study the researchers included nearly 152 elderly participants with a mean age of 81. They were from the Rush Memory and Aging Project, a large-scale study looking at risk factors for Alzheimer's disease. These participants were not victims of dementia or mild cognitive impairment.

The contestants were asked to mention the frequency at which they participated in a list of mentally engaging activities during the last year.  They were made to score their frequency on a scale of 1- 5. The activities included reading newspapers and magazines, writing letters and playing cards and board games.

Apart from this, the participants were made to undergo brain MRI using a 1.5-T scanner within one year of clinical evaluation.  They then gathered the anatomical and DTI data and used it to generate diffusion anisotropy maps.

On carefully analyzing the data the researchers revealed a link between the frequency of cognitive activity in later life and higher diffusion anisotropy values in the brain.

"Several areas throughout the brain, including regions quite important to cognition, showed higher micro-structural integrity with more frequent cognitive activity in late life," said Dr. Arfanakis. "Keeping the brain occupied late in life has positive outcomes."

According to Dr. Arfanakis, diffusion anisotropy drops gradually beginning at around age 30. "Higher diffusion anisotropy in elderly patients who engage in frequent cognitive activity suggests that these people have brain properties similar to those of younger individuals," he said.

The researchers will continue to follow the study participants with an eye toward comparing the diffusion anisotropy results over time.

"In these participants, we've shown an association between late-life cognitive activity and structural integrity, but we haven't shown that one causes the other," Dr. Arfanakis said. "We want to follow the same patients over time to demonstrate a causal link."

The study was presented on November 25 at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

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