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Intellectual engagement is linked to higher cognitive skills in older age (but not to slower decline)

People who remain intellectually active and curious their entire lives tend to start their decline from “a higher cognitive point,” the study’s authors conclude.

Crossword puzzle
People who remain intellectually active and curious their entire lives tend to start their decline from “a higher cognitive point.”
REUTERS/Gary Cameron

Staying engaged in intellectual pursuits, such as reading, playing a musical instrument and doing crossword puzzles, doesn’t protect against mental decline late in life, a new study has found.

But people who remain intellectually active and curious their entire lives tend to start their decline from “a higher cognitive point,” the study also reports.

So don’t give up learning the flute or puzzle solving or going to your book club quite yet.

The study was published online this week in the BMJ (formerly known as the British Medical Journal).

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For the study, a team of researchers from the University of Aberdeen recruited an interesting group of people: 498 Scottish adults who were all born in 1936 and who all took an intelligence test on the same day in 1947, when they were 11 or 12 years old.

A half-century later, when those people were 64, the Aberdeen researchers asked them if they would be willing to become part of an ongoing study on age-related cognitive decline. At that point, all the participants were living independently without any form of dementia.

For the study, the participants were given a series of cognitive tests. They were also asked questions designed to assess their intellectual engagement, including ones about whether they enjoyed reading books with complex content, problem-solving (coming up with new solutions for multifaceted problems), and thinking about abstract ideas and concepts. In addition, some of the questions evaluated the participants’ intellectual curiosity — whether they enjoyed learning about new topics through various media.

All of these assessments were repeated for up to five times over the next 15 years — until the participants died (as 57 did) or reached their 78th year.

Key findings

The study found that the people who had higher scores on the intelligence tests taken during childhood were more likely to have stayed intellectually engaged into their 60s and 70s. Interestingly, women tended to be more intellectually engaged than men once they reached those ages, and they also averaged higher scores on the cognitive tests.

The researchers then compared people’s levels of intellectual engagement with their levels of mental ability. They found that cognitive skills late in life were strongly linked to intellectual activities, particularly ones involving problem solving. That finding held even after accounting for the participants’ intelligence scores in childhood and how much education they attained.

Yet, the study also found that “although typical intellectual engagement was associated with cognitive ability levels in late adulthood, it had no effect on the trajectory of decline over time.”

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In other words, being intellectually engaged late in life did not appear to have any effect on the speed at which people’s mental abilities declined over time.

Taken together, these findings suggest, say the researchers, that intellectual engagement — particularly problem solving — builds up a person’s “cognitive reserve” to the point where it takes greater age-related “neuropathological burdens” (damage to the brain from diseases such as Alzheimer’s) before symptoms of cognitive decline become apparent.

“‘Use it or lose it’ is the received wisdom when it comes to cognitive ability,” note the study’s authors in an article on their research for The Conversation. “[But] … our latest study suggests that it depends on how much ‘it’ you have to start with.”

Limitations, implications and holiday shopping tips

The research comes with several limitations. Most notably, it was an observational study and therefore can’t prove a causal relationship between staying intellectually engaged and having stronger cognitive abilities later in life.

Also, only 96 of the original 498 participants took part in the final round of testing. As the researchers point out, that dropout rate may mean the study’s results underestimate the possible protective effect of intellectual engagement because people with higher cognitive performance are more likely to be willing to have their mental skills tested.

Still, the findings are provocative.

“Our findings are consistent with comparable studies that followed older people from age 50,” the authors explain in their article for The Conversation. “We have identified problem-solving as being of specific importance. This suggests that interventions to boost resilience to ageing should include problem-solving components, such as reading complex novels, solving crossword puzzles and practicing a musical instrument.”

Because the study was published in the BMJ’s annual “Christmas issue,” which tends to take a lighter look at research, the authors also offer some holiday shopping tips:

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“For those of you struggling to come up with good ideas for Christmas presents for the “developing” adults in your life — although a shiny new chess board, 1000 page Sudoku puzzle book, or all-inclusive tickets to the museum of modern art’s quiz night might not influence trajectories of cognitive decline, have no fear.  If family and friends give you a disappointed look on opening their Christmas present, remind them that investment in intellectual activities throughout life could provide them with a higher cognitive point from which to decline. Surely, this is a good a gift as any!”

FMI:  You’ll find the article on the BMJ’s website.