Does mental training serve to combat age-related intellectual decline?

Over the last few years, the idea that the brain is like a muscle has become popular: if it is not trained, it atrophies. As a consequence, the exercise of the brain through the resolution of problems, puzzles, Sudokus, etc. has been publicized as a method not only to minimize the intellectual decline that occurs with the age, but also to reduce the risk of suffering dementias Senile or Alzheimer's disease.

The reality, however, is that scientific evidence in the area of neuroscience supporting previous claims is very weak. As Steven Novella, a neurologist and professor at Yale University's School of Medicine, explains: "What shows more than two decades of research is that by performing a specific mental activity, you become more adept at that activity, and that's it. If you do a Sudoku, you become better at solving Sudokus, you don't get smarter. "

These findings of neuroscience, however, have not been an obstacle to the flourishing industry of "brain training" in the form of books, video games, music, courses... In fact, a sector report predicts that the business of cognitive evaluation and Brain training move more than eight billion dollars in the world for 2022. As almost always happens, marketing is ahead of science, when not directly tramples.

A study recently published in the medical journal British Medical JouraL adds another reason to be skeptical about brain training. Researchers from the University of Aberdeen (United Kingdom) and the National University of Ireland followed 498 volunteers for 15 years. All participants shared a number of details: They were born in 1936, lived independently in northeastern Scotland and had previously participated in a mental health survey in that country in 1947. The question that scientists were asking is how the degree of mental activity related to the cognitive decline associated with age, so they assessed the mental activity of the volunteers over time, and also their cognitive performance.

¿Sirve el entrenamiento mental para combatir el declive intelectual asociado a la edad?Carles Ribas

Among the results of the study, yes, they found that those people who were most mentally active throughout their lives also possessed superior cognitive skills. However, it is not possible to know, through the study, what the cause is and what the consequence is. If those who are smarter tend to be more mentally active (which would be logical) or vice versa, they are more intelligent precisely because they are more mentally active. However, the crux of the question of the study is that greater mental activity was not associated with a delay of cognitive decline in later stages of life compared with the lower activity group.

In other words, as age was causing declines in cognitive skills, both mentally active volunteers and liabilities suffered an intellectual decline at the same speed (specifically memory problems and speed of Processing). However, those who had been active throughout their lives had an advantage, with higher cognitive abilities, which allowed them to enjoy more time with better cognitive functions. The study's own authors explain: "These results indicate that involvement in problem-solving activities does not protect against individual decline, but gives a higher starting position from which the decline is observed and delays the The point at which disability becomes meaningful. "

This reminds of previously documented cases such as chess. It is known that, in general, when they suffer from Alzheimer's disease, their affectation of life is considerably lower than the normal population. It is not that their mental activity protects them against dementia or Alzheimer is that they have superior brain skills that makes clinically the most obvious symptoms take much longer to show. Striking was the case of a chess who suffered mild cognitive impairment in the last years of his life. When he passed away, the doctors discovered with surprise at the autopsy that his brain actually showed very advanced signs of Alzheimer's.

Of course, there is always to consider the limitations of this type of studies. Undoubtedly, the study's strengths are the 15-year follow-up on a population of almost 500 people. Nevertheless, it is an observational study (there is no intervention of the researchers on the habits of the Volunteers), which prevents us from attributing causes and effects. In its place we can only establish correlations and general conclusions. Even so, the moral of the story is clear: if you are intelligent and have had a life rich in learning and diverse mental activities, probably part of a higher cognitive function that will not delay the mental decline, but make you part of a situation More privileged and the symptoms will take longer to show. Now, doing mental training through specific activities from a certain age is not going to be the magic solution to compensate a whole previous life of mental laziness.

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