Researchers at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago have found that mental decline is fastest in the final two and a half years of a person’s life. Secondary research was also undertaken and showed that mental activity such as board games can slow down mental decline late in life.
The study was conducted on 147 Catholic priests, nuns and monks with no history of memory disorders, they underwent memory testing every year for the final 6 to 15 years of their life. Post-mortem their brains were examined for amyloid plaques and neuronal tangles – common markers of Alzheimer’s disease.
The findings were that in the last two and a half years of life, memory decline was 8 to 17 times faster than it had been year to year prior to this period. Showing that during this short time frame cognitive decline accelerated dramatically. They also found that during this time period the frequency of tangles and the appearance of plaques occurred at a higher rate. However, this could not explain the speed at which mental decline occurred:
“The findings suggest that the changes in mental abilities during the two to three years before death are not driven directly by processes related to Alzheimer’s disease, but instead that the memory and other cognitive decline may involve some biological changes in the brain specific to the end of life. The study by Wilson and his co-authors deepens our understanding of terminal cognitive decline.” comments by Hiroko H. Dodge, PhD with Oregon Health and Science University in Portland
The second study, also by the same research team lead by Dr Wilson, used a larger data set of 1,076 people with an average age of 80 years old and no signs of dementia. They underwent yearly memory testing for roughly five years and provided information about their activities such as how often they: read the newspaper, played a board game (for example, chess), wrote a letter, went to the library etc.
The results showed that patients with higher mental activity had a much slower rate of mental decline than their less active counterparts. The researchers were also able to predict the rate and level of mental decline based on the amount of mental activity that a patient underwent.
“The results suggest a cause and effect relationship: that being mentally active leads to better cognitive health in old age,” Dr Wilson