Memory decline and cognitive impairment are among the most common conditions associated with aging, but they may be preventable in some cases. Scientists have argued that making changes to diet, such as increasing intake of vitamin D, or drinking moderate amounts of coffee, can slow the progression of cognitive decline and prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, heart health is often monitored alongside brain health, as the two have been shown to decline together. New research, however, suggests preserving brain health may best be done by engaging the brain itself.

In a study to be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 68th Annual Meeting in Vancouver, Canada, researchers tested how different activities affected the cognitive function and memories of elderly adults. The study involved 1,929 adults aged 70 and older whose memory and cognitive abilities were normal at the time of their recruitment. Each participant filled out a questionnaire about their participation in mentally stimulating activities over the course of the prior year. The researchers defined these activities as computer use, reading, crafting, and socializing. Following the questionnaire, the researchers monitored the participants’ cognitive abilities for four years, on average.

The researchers discovered that adults who used a computer at least once a week were 42 percent less likely to develop memory and thinking problems than those who did not. Out of the 1,077 adults who reported computer use, only 193 (17.9 percent) developed mild cognitive impairment compared to 263 (30.9 percent) of the 852 adults who did not use computers.

While computer use was certainly the most helpful in combating memory loss and cognitive decline, each of the other brain-engaging activities studied also proved beneficial. Adults who engaged in social activities were 23 percent less likely to develop memory problems than those who did not, while magazine readers had a 30 percent lower chance of experiencing memory loss. Adults who crafted, meanwhile, were 16 percent less likely to lose their memories, while game players were 14 percent safer.

In 2011, researchers at Yale University published a groundbreaking study concerning the biological basis for memory loss and cognitive impairments in old age. In their paper, they explained that neurons consistently fire to keep information fresh and easily accessible in the mind. This rate of firing, however, slows down as we age. For this reason, brain-engaging tasks like those mentioned above can help keep the mind active by promoting neuroplasticity, which builds new connections and keeps our memories intact.

"The results show the importance of keeping the mind active as we age," said study author Janina Krell-Roesch, and member of the American Academy of Neurology, in a press release. "While this study only shows association, not cause and effect, as people age, they may want to consider participating in activities like these because they may keep a mind healthier, longer."