Brain Power: How To Keep Your Mind Young

FILE - This April 13, 2011 file photo, shows a MONOPOLY Property Trading Game, in Portland, Ore. Toy maker Hasbro Inc. said M
FILE - This April 13, 2011 file photo, shows a MONOPOLY Property Trading Game, in Portland, Ore. Toy maker Hasbro Inc. said Monday, July 23, 2012 its second-quarter net income dropped 25 percent on weak sales in most categories as revenue in major product categories including boys, girls and games declined. But higher prices and cost-cutting helped the maker of Monopoly, Nerf and My Little Pony beat analysts' earnings expectations. Its shares rose nearly 4 percent. The second quarter is seasonally small for toy makers, which make the bulk of their sales during the second half of the year and the holiday season. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

You've fretted about your crow's feet, turkey neck and muffin top. But what about your brain? How can you make sure it stays fit and healthy as you grow older?

By reading, writing and playing a wide assortment of games. Or so says a new study that linked mental activities with healthier brains later in life.

While previous research has shown a connection between late-life cognitive activity and better mental acuity, the new study from Dr. Konstantinos Arfanakis and colleagues from Rush University Medical Center and Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago goes a step further by studying what effect this cognitive activity might have on the brain's white matter.

And white matter is key, providing the essential connectivity that draws different regions of the brain together into networks so that they can perform various mental operations.

"The activities we studied in our work involved only the following: reading the newspaper, books, magazines, writing letters, visiting a library, attending a play and playing games such as chess or checkers," Arfanakis said. "It's hard to believe though that other mentally engaging activities such as learning a language would not have a similar effect (but we do not currently have any proof for activities other than the ones we studied)."

The study included 152 elderly participants, with an average age of 81, who were without dementia or mild cognitive impairment. 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. An analysis revealed significant associations between the frequency of cognitive activity in later life and healthier brain performance.

"Keeping the brain occupied late in life has positive outcomes," Arfanakis said.

But what's the difference between this study and previous ones on mental activities and health?

"Most previous work on the relation between cognitive activity in late life and cognition has ignored the characteristics of the brain, treating the brain as a black box," Arfanakis said. "In our study, we looked inside this black box."

More specifically, he said, researchers studied the microstructural integrity of white matter -- the wiring of the brain -- in elderly persons with different levels of cognitive activity in late life.

"We discovered that elderly persons with a high frequency of cognitive activity have higher microstructural integrity in brain white matter than persons with lower frequency of cognitive activity," Arfanakis said. "Since the microstructural integrity of white matter naturally declines with age, our findings suggest that cognitive activity in late life may be protecting cognition by maintaining the condition of brain wiring."

In addition to Arfanakis, many researchers have urged people to perform "mental gymnastics" such as word problems as they grow older, in order to keep the mind sharp.

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