Reading a book or playing a spirited game of chess could actually help seniors preserve the structural integrity of their brains, according to a new research presented Sunday at the Radiological Society of North America’s (RSNA
) annual meeting.
Building upon previous research that established a link between cognitive activity and improved astuteness and discernment later in life, researchers from the Rush University Medical Center
and the Illinois Institute of Technology
analyzed what impact such activity could have on the white matter of a person’s brain — i.e., axons, or the nerve fibers that transmit information throughout the center of the nervous system.
In order to do so, they used a form of magnetic resonance imaging known as diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to create data on diffusion anisotropy. Diffusion anisotropy is a measurement of how water molecules move throughout the brain, and in white matter, the process takes advantage of the fact water moves more easily in a direction parallel to the brain’s axons and less easily in a direction perpendicular to those nerve fibers.
Typically, as a person ages (or as they are injured or contract diseases), the anisotropy values decline, lead author Dr. Konstantinos Arfanakis explained in a statement
. If a person has lower neuronal density, or the amount of myelin — which typically impedes the perpendicular travel of the water — then the water “has more freedom” to travel in that direction.
As part of their research, Dr. Arfanakis and colleagues recruited 152 subjects from the Rush Memory and Aging Project
, a study seeking risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease
. Those participants, who had a mean age of 81 and were given a clinical evaluation to make sure they did not suffer from dementia, were asked to rate the frequency with which they completed certain “mentally engaging activities” — including reading newspapers, writing letters, and playing card or board games — over the past year, the RSNA explained.
“Participants underwent brain MRI using a 1.5-T scanner within one year of clinical evaluation. The researchers collected anatomical and DTI data and used it to generate diffusion anisotropy maps,” the organization added. “Data analysis revealed significant associations between the frequency of cognitive activity in later life and higher diffusion anisotropy values in the brain.”
“Several areas throughout the brain, including regions quite important to cognition, showed higher microstructural integrity with more frequent cognitive activity in late life. Keeping the brain occupied late in life has positive outcomes,” added Dr. Arfanakis. “Reading the newspaper, writing letters, visiting a library, attending a play or playing games, such as chess or checkers, are all simple activities that can contribute to a healthier brain.”