Cognition and Mental Stimulation

Cognition and Mental Stimulation

Research suggests that engaging in mentally stimulating activities helps build your cognitive reserve which is your ability to withstand adverse brain changes before you exhibit symptoms. Experts believe that people who have attained a higher education level or have been exposed to more brain-stimulating activities may be more resilient to these negative effects.

Researchers think these new skills and habits create more connections between brain cells and brain areas. The more new things we learn, the more connections there are, so even if some of them die as a result of brain disease, there are still some connections that remain, which allows you to remain more functional.

The role of our cognitive processes is to absorb and understand information via experiences, stimulated senses and learning. When something happens that negatively impacts cognitive processes, it can severely affect quality of living and ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. 

Maintaining a healthy social life and staying socially and intellectually engaged with others also has been shown to bolster your brain function. By communicating with others, you challenge your mind to interpret verbal and visual cues and respond to them accordingly. Social interaction also can improve your mood and, potentially, ward off depression, which can adversely affect your cognition.

A study involving 2,000 healthy older adults (average age 78) found that mentally stimulating activities were linked to a lower risk or delay of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), and that the timing and number of these activities may also play a role. During the study, 532 participants developed MCI.

  • Using a computer in middle-age (50-65) was associated with a 48% lower risk of MCI, while using a computer in later life was associated with a 30% lower risk, and using a computer in both middle-age and later life was associated with a 37% lower risk.
  • Engaging in social activities, like going to movies or going out with friends, or playing games, like doing crosswords or playing cards, in both middle-age and later life were associated with a 20% lower risk of developing MCI.
  • Craft activities were associated with a 42% lower risk, but only in later life.
  • Those who engaged in two activities were 28% less likely to develop MCI than those who took part in no activities, while those who took part in three activities were 45% less likely, those with four activities 56% percent less likely and those with five activities were 43% less likely.

Mental activity increases the flow of blood, oxygen and nutrients to the brain. It also acts as a signal which promotes the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic growth factor (BDGF). BDGF is a protective chemical which induces growth and survival of neurons. 

Enriching mental activity also induces increases in synaptogenesis, with synaptic connections increasing by 50-100%. As the density of synapses is decreased in patients with dementia this effect is proposed to have a significant influence on the cognitive protection provided by stimulation.

The data suggests the risk for dementia appears to be substantially modifiable even during older age. Mental stimulation or cognition “training” has been shown to be beneficial in providing a protective and persistent neurological effect when used for as little as 3 months in late life (over 60 years of age). Cognitive programs that have been used to achieve this cognitive effect include:

  • Reasoning training: Reasoning training is a test in logic.
  • Memory tasks
  • Attention tasks: Attention tasks are tasks which test a person’s ability to attend to important information and ignore unimportant information.
  • Information processing tasks
  • Problem solving:  The problems require reasoning and logic in order to solve. 

Mental stimulation looks to keep the brain active, challenged and stimulated through a number of different ways. Here are just some of the ways to do this:

1. Get creative: Doing anything remotely creative, writing a poem, painting, drawing or singing can get your cognitive processes flowing.
2. Learn a new skill such as another language or an instrument.
3. Puzzles: Playing a board game such as Scrabble or completing a crossword puzzle is an easy way to improve your language-relatedcognitive processes.
4. Get physical: Physical exercise is another great way to stimulate your brain, it’s also good for your health and releases a load of endorphins – which we love. Especially beneficial are physical tasks that require thinking such as dance or Tai Chi.
5. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a great way to “restore your brain’s structural balanceand switch up your current way of processing information.”
6. Brain training: Mobile-based brain training applications are all the rage, not only are they a science-backed way to challenge your cognition, but they can be done in a matter of minutes. However, research about the benefits of specialized brain-training programs has produced mixed results. The majority of evidence would indicate that these tests help you do better in a particular area, so if it is training your attention, you’ll get better at doing that attention task. What is less clear is whether it will generalize to other areas of your life.


Are you interested in learning about your cognitive decline risks? There are still a few spots left in our Healthy Aging Brain Research Study.

Early identification of cognitive issues is critical for implementing proactive measures that can positively impact brain health, reduce the risk of dementia, and contribute to a higher quality of life as individuals age.  Apply for The Healthy Aging Brain Research Study here!

Written by:

Efan Gonsalves
Registered Physiotherapist, Athletic Therapist (retired)




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