An observational study suggests people in their 70s that use a computer, play games, and participate in social activities might reduce their risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or the stage between age-related cognitive decline and dementia such as Alzheimer’s.

People with MCI tend to forget things. They also lose their train of thoughts and thread of conversations. More than 16 million people in the United States live with MCI, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The study published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), also shows the more activities an elderly person engages, the lower risk for developing MCI.

"Our study took a close look at how often people participated in mentally stimulating activities in both middle age and later life, with a goal of examining when such activities may be most beneficial to the brain," said study author Dr. Yonas E. Geda of the Mayo Clinic in Arizona and an AAN member.

The study showed that overall, each different type of mentally stimulating activity showed positive effects on brain health.

For one, computer use in middle age and later life lowered the risk of MCI by 37 percent. Engaging in social activities, doing crosswords or playing cards in middle age and later life reduced the risk of MCI by 20 percent. Craft activities lowered the risk of MCI by a huge 42 percent but only in later life.

The study also found the number of mentally stimulating activities play a role in the risk of developing MCI.

Those who participated in two or three activities were 28 percent and 45 percent, respectively, less likely to develop MCI compared with those who didn’t engage in any activities. A person taking part in four or five activities reduced the risk of developing MCI by 56 percent and 43 percent, respectively, which is surprising.

The study benefited from a large number of participants, but the researchers caution that the results are based only on each individual's recollections about their participation in mentally stimulating activities in middle age. More research is necessary to confirm the findings.

"Our study was observational, so it is important to point out that while we found links between a lower risk of developing (MCI) and various mentally stimulating activities, it is possible that instead of the activities lowering a person's risk, a person with (MCI) may not be able to participate in these activities as often," said Dr. Geda.

Researchers recruited 2,000 people in their late 70s without MCI. These people were asked to fill out a questionnaire about how often they engaged in different types of mentally stimulating activity both in their 50s and 60s and in later life.

Participants underwent thinking and memory tests every 15 months. Researchers monitored them for an average of 5 years. The study said 532 people developed MCI during this period.

Of the participants, only 15 used a computer in middle age. On the other hand, 77 of the 1,468 participants without MCI used a computer during the same life stage.

memory loss
Neurons fire more slowly as we age, increasing the risk for memory loss and cognitive impairments. Photo Courtesy Flickr, Craig Sunter