A new study highlighted in the journal Neurology in February reported staying both physically and mentally active in midlife (your 40s) may protect the brain decades later.

The study involved 800 Swedish women with an average age of 47 who were followed for 44 years, and who were scored in two areas of mental and physical activities.

Women who were assigned to high levels of mental activity were 46% less likely to have developed Alzheimer's disease and 34% less likely to have developed dementia overall than the women in the group which performed lower levels of the mental activity practices.

With regards to physical activity, 52% of the women in the study were less likely to have developed a type of dementia associated with cerebrovascular (refers to blood flow in the brain) disease and 56% less likely to have developed more general dementia than the women in the group who remained less physically active.

While the results indicate levels of both physical and mental activities could affect cognition later, physician and study author Jenna Najar, of the Institute for Neuroscience and Physiology at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, noted physical activity may lower chances of vascular dementia in particular.

The study’s conclusions also showed how the effect of both mental and physical activity are distinct. As Najar put it: “We found that mental activities in midlife, such as reading a book, doing crossword puzzles, singing or visiting concerts, to name a few, reduced the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, regardless of how physically active the women were. Physical activity, meanwhile, in midlife reduced the risk of more vascular forms of dementia, regardless of how mentally active the women were.”

Experts agreed more studies are needed. While research is still developing, strong evidence exists that you can reduce your risk of cognitive decline by making key lifestyle changes, including participating in regular physical and mental activity, staying socially engaged and maintaining good heart health.

According to the Healthy Brain Initiative by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, "public health's role in maintaining cognitive health is a vital part of healthy aging and quality of life is emerging."

Public health professionals are gaining a better understanding of brain disorders and risk factors, and the public health community should embrace cognitive health as a priority.


Questions about Alzheimer's disease or related disorders can be sent to Dana Territo, the Memory Whisperer, owner of Dana Territo Consulting, LLC, at thememorywhisperer@gmail.com.