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Problem-solving games can boost mental ability over a lifetime

Study examines the truth of the ‘use it or lose it’ conjecture on cognitive ability

Study examines the influence of the ‘use it or lose it’ conjecture on cognitive ability

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‘Use it or lose it’ refers to the idea that cognitive function can be maintained in later life by engaging in intellectually stimulating activities. Although guidance on successful ageing highlights the importance of social and physical activity and engagement, analysis of the protective effects of regular engagement in cognitively challenging pursuits is difficult.

This study aimed to explore if intellectual engagement can offset cognitive decline. Intellectual engagement was assessed with self-completed questionnaires including questions about enjoyment of reading, problem-solving, abstract thinking and intellectual curiosity.

The participants, all born in 1936, were also given tests to assess memory and mental speed. The tests were first administered to participants at the age of 64 and then repeated on up to five occasions over the next 14 years. The researchers also had access to participants’ childhood intelligence tests and data from structured interviews.

Findings showed that intellectual engagement did influence cognitive ability in later life, but had no effect on the trajectory of decline. This draws into question the ‘use it or lose it’ conjecture.

Age-related decline cannot be halted purely with intellectual activity. However, a different interpretation of ‘losing it’ could be falling below an absolute functional threshold. Here, those who said they enjoyed problem-solving activities fared better than others.

Implications for practice

The researchers suggest that, while later life activity might not influence the rate of decline, involvement in problem-solving games and activities throughout life could provide individuals with a higher cognitive point from which to decline, so enabling them to cope better for longer.

Staff R, Hogan M, Williams D et al (2018) Intellectual engagement and cognitive ability in later life (the ‘use it or lose it’ conjecture): longitudinal, prospective study. BMJ. 363:k4925. doi: 10.1136/bmj.k4925

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