Rx to ward off dementia: glue gun, paint brush, pals and computers

To stay sharp, craft projects like scrap-booking or model-building may help

If you're over 85 and you're reading this online, you're probably one smart cookie -- and you're more likely to stay that way for at least the next few years, says a new study.

But there are other fun and easy ways to, as my dad used to say, "hold on to your marbles" well into your 80s. Whether it's a habit started in midlife or taken up well into retirement years, you could get crafty, spend some quality time with other people and engage in the arts.

Much has been made in recent years about the powers of intellectual engagement as we age. And if books, newspapers and challenging brain teasers are your thing, by all means, keep doing them: There's lots of evidence that a habit of strenuous mental exercise helps keep the neurons humming into old age.

But if you're above all a people person, or a person who can't resist a good crafts project, new research suggests that socializing, crafting and engagement in the arts may all help to hold cognitive impairment at bay, as well.

A Mayo Clinic Study of Aging found that among cognitively healthy people 85 to 89 who were followed for four years, engaging in significant social activity in mid- and late life drove down the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment by 55%. Engaging in craft projects in mid- to late life drove risk of such intellectual decline down 45%.

And compared with those who did not use a computer in late life, those who did were 53% less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment in their late 80s or early 90s.

The study, published Wednesday in the journal Neurology, makes clear that not all the factors that contribute to the risk of cognitive impairment in old age are matters of choice: Among the 256 men and women who agreed to be assessed for as long as six years after enrolling in the study, those who were found to be carriers of a genetic variation associated with Alzheimer's disease -- the APoE-4 allele -- were at greater risk of significant cognitive decline.

In all, 121 of the 256 -- just over 47% -- of the subjects enrolled in the study developed clinically significant memory and executive function problems in the two- to six-year study period.

Also at greater risk were those with vascular diseases, chronic conditions current symptoms of depression -- including sadness, guilt, low energy, concentration problems and sleep troubles -- and those who developed hypertension during midlife.

The authors of the study acknowledge that they can't be sure whether socializing, crafting and computer use actually help keep memory and intellectual function sharper or whether the cognitively healthy are just more likely to engage in those activities. But they say these "nonpharmacological preventive strategies may reduce ... risk in the oldest old."

The human brain amazes me at all ages. Follow me on Twitter @LATMelissaHealy and "like" Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.

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