In a new study, reading magazines, knitting and quilting, and social activities in midlife cut the risk that people would develop memory loss in their 70s or 80s by more than one-third.
And if you've already turned 70 or 80, it's not too late to benefit from exercises that tax the brain, says researcher Yonas Geda, MD, a neuropsychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
In later years, reading books, playing games, and doing craft activities lowered the chance of memory loss by about one-third, the study shows.
Computer activities were even more protective for people in their 70s and 80s, cutting the risk of memory loss in half, Geda tells WebMD.
Watching more than seven hours of TV a day, on the other hand, was linked to a higher chance of memory loss.
The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology.
Challenging the Mind
The familiar adage that you can't teach an old dog new tricks "is absolutely incorrect," comments Greg Jicha, MD, a neurologist at University of Kentucky in Lexington who is also studying the link between brain activities and memory loss.
Activities that challenge the mind rewire the brain, he tells WebMD.
Lab experiments show that if you put brain cells in a Petri dish, "they will form connections and survive. But if you put just one cell in the dish, it will die," Jicha says.
Reading, playing games, and other activities stimulate brain cells to connect and flourish, he explains.
Novel activities are particularly beneficial, Jicha adds. "Don't just keep doing the same old thing."
The new study involved 197 people between the ages of 70 and 89 with mild cognitive impairment, or diagnosed memory loss, and 1,124 people in the same age group with no memory problems.
Participants were asked a series of questions about their daily activities within the past year and in middle age, when they were between 50 to 65 years old.
A limitation of the study is that "they are relying on memories of the participants," Jicha says. He suggests that in future studies, family members and friends also be asked about participants' activities to double check their memories.
Geda acknowledges that the study doesn't prove cause and effect and that more research is needed to confirm the findings.
But together with other research, "it does suggest that cognitive exercise appears to protect against future memory loss," he says.