A quick search of summer camp options in my area reveals daytime or sleep away camps with activities including the following: nature exploration, musical theater, rock music performance, fencing, robotics, cartooning, rocket space science, sailing, circus arts, computer coding, zoo veterinarian shadowing, architecture, to name only a few. And that doesn’t even include all the usual traditional sports involving courts, water, grass and dirt. If only there were summer camp for older adults! I suppose it does exist in other venues and by other names. The key is to have the time and inclination to seek out such stimulating activities.
A recent article published in the journal Neurology, suggests that stimulating activities like these summer camp offerings may benefit older adults. The article, called Frequency, number, and timing of mental activity and risk of mild cognitive impairment, examined the typical activities of a group of study participants at least 70 years old. The aim of the study was to see if mentally stimulating activities (like those great summer camps) correlated with decrease chances of cognitive decline with age. In the study the particular activities of interest were: book-reading, craft activities, computer activities, game-playing, and social activities. The 2000 subjects in the study were followed for 5 years and underwent cognitive testing to look for onset of what we call Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), a potential precursor to a more disabling condition we call dementia.
The findings showed that people who engaged in more of these activities, especially at older ages, were less likely to develop MCI. Compared to people without any of these activities, engaging in one of them reduced the chances of MCI by 20%. People who engaged in all 5 of these activities saw a reduction of 43%. That’s a big number and beats the effect of our best medications for dementia by a mile!
Of course this kind of study can give misleading results: maybe it’s not the activity that keeps people sharper, maybe it’s the sharper people that are drawn to these activities. But there is the concept of “cognitive reserve” that has been shown in other studies and that this study probably supports. Cognitive reserve means that even though the brain structure may deteriorate with age, or the first protein plaques of Alzheimer’s disease may appear, people with cognitive reserve from a more stimulating life experience don’t manifest cognitive changes as early as people who never built up their brain power in life.
It certainly can’t hurt to be social, play games, and read books. And if the effect is half what it seems in the study, that’s pretty good! So go out there and find the equivalent of summer camp! The kids seem to enjoy it.