The “use it or lose it” conjecture that cognitive function can be maintained by exercising that function is widely accepted. However, researchers have shown that regularly undertaking problem-solving activities does not prevent mental decline in later life.
As part of the study, published in the BMJ, researchers examined the association between intellectual engagement and cognitive ability in later life among 498 volunteers born in 1936, who had taken part in the Scottish Mental Health Survey of 1947.
The participants were recalled for memory and mental processing speed testing up to five times over a 15-year period. Current adult ability was assessed using the digit symbol substitution test and the auditory-verbal learning test. Intellectual engagement was assessed with a 16-question version of the Typical Intellectual Engagement (TIE) questionnaire.
The study found that intellectual engagement was significantly associated with level of cognitive performance in later life. However, the authors said engagement did not influence the trajectory of age-related decline in cognitive performance.
The authors said the results indicate that while engagement in problem solving does not protect an from cognitive decline, it may impart a higher starting point from which decline is observed and offset the point at which impairment becomes significant.