Two new studies have found that a person's memory declines faster in the 2.5 years before death, but keeping mentally fit – through reading or playing board games – can preserve and improve a person’s ability to remember things.
The new research, conducted by scientists from the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and published in the journal Neurology, involved more than 1,200 healthy people who did not have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
For the first study, 174 Catholic priests, nuns and monks had their memories tested yearly for six to 15 years before death. Researchers, led by Robert S. Wilson, found about 2.5 years before death, memory and thinking abilities declined at rates that were up to 17 times faster than earlier in life.
"The findings suggest that the changes in mental abilities during the two to three years before death are not driven directly by processes related to Alzheimer's disease, but instead that the memory and other cognitive decline may involve some biological changes in the brain specific to the end of life,” said Hiroko H. Dodge, with Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, in an editorial that accompanied the research.
The second study focused on the mental activities of 1,076 people with an average age of 80 who were free of dementia. Participants underwent yearly memory tests for about five years and reported how often they read the newspaper, wrote letters, visited a library and played board games.
Researchers found participation in mentally stimulating activities and mental abilities declined at similar rates as people aged, but those who continued to engage in such activities had better cognitive functioning.
"The results suggest a cause and effect relationship: that being mentally active leads to better cognitive health in old age," said Wilson.
The studies were supported by the National Institute on Aging and the Illinois Department of Health.