Physical, Mental Activity for Preserving Thinking Skills Differ for Men, Women

Cognitive reserve, as the research team references it, is the buffer that occurs when people have strong thinking skills, even when their brains may already show signs of the underlying changes associated with cognitive impairment and dementia.

Benefits of physical and mental activity may look different for men and women in conditions such as dementia, according to a study published in Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

During the study, activities such as reading, going to class, and playing games were looked at for assessment as areas requiring thinking speed and memory. Cognitive reserve, as the research team references it, is the buffer that occurs when people have strong thinking skills, even when their brains may already show signs of the underlying changes associated with cognitive impairment and dementia.

“We found that greater physical activity was associated with greater thinking speed reserve in women, but not in men,” said study author Judy Pa, PhD, of the University of California, San Diego, in a press release. “Taking part in more mental activities was associated with greater thinking speed reserve for both men and women.”

The study included 758 people with an average of 76 years of age. They were categorized into groups based on having no thinking or memory problems, having mild cognitive impairment, and having dementia. The participants then had brain scans and took thinking speed and memory tests. Their test scores were then compared against changes in their brains that are known to be associated with dementia, like the total volume of the hippocampus, which is a key brain region impacted by Alzheimer disease.

In addition, people were asked about their usual weekly physical activity. For mental activity, participants were asked whether they partook in 3 types of activities in the past 13 months, including reading magazines, newspapers, or books; going to classes; and playing cards, games, or bingo. For each activity, 1 point was given, for a maximum of 3 points.

In mental activity, participants averaged 1.4 points, whereas in physical activity, participants took part in an average of at least 15 minutes per week doing activities that elevate heart rates, such as brisk walking and biking.

Pa noted that the results showed each additional mental activity that the group participated in corresponded to 13 fewer years of aging on average in their processing speed and in their thinking skills (17 years in men versus 10 years in women).

“As we have arguably few-to-no effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, prevention is crucial. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of treatment,” Pa said in the press release. “To know that people could potentially improve their cognitive reserve by taking simple steps such as going to classes at the community center, playing bingo with their friends or spending more time walking or gardening is very exciting.”

The researchers also looked at whether the relationship between physical and mental activities and cognitive reserve was affected by the gene that carries the strongest risk for Alzheimer, called APOE e4. It was noted that for women, having the gene lessens the effects of the beneficial relationship between physical and mental activities and cognitive reserve.

A limitation of the study included people were reporting their own physical and mental activity, so patient error in reporting due to misremembering details may be a factor. Further, structural and societal factors that can affect cognitive reserve were also not measured.

REFERENCE

Do Benefits of Physical, Mental Activity on Thinking Differ for Men and Women? American Academy of Neurology. July 20, 2022. Accessed July 27, 2022. https://www.aan.com/PressRoom/Home/PressRelease/5003#:~:text=MINNEAPOLIS%20%E2%80%93%20Studies%20have%20shown%20that,the%20American%20Academy%20of%20Neurology.

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