The study included 152 elderly participants, mean age 81 years, from the Rush Memory and Aging Project, a large-scale study looking at risk factors for Alzheimer's disease. Participants were without dementia or mild cognitive impairment, based on a detailed clinical evaluation. Researchers asked the participants to rate on a scale of 1 to 5 the frequency with which they participated in a list of mentally engaging activities during the last year. Among the activities were reading newspapers and magazines, writing letters and playing cards and board games.
Participants underwent brain MRI using a 1.5-T scanner within one year of clinical evaluation. The researchers collected anatomical and DTI data and used it to generate diffusion anisotropy maps.
Data analysis revealed significant associations 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 microstructural 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."
Coauthors are Anil K. Vasireddi, B.S.,
David A. Bennett
, M.D., and
Debra A. Fleischman
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