"Maintaining both an active physical lifestyle and an active mental lifestyle has been shown to have cognitive [mental] benefits that may include delaying or preventing Alzheimer's disease," Gandy said.
Rates of Alzheimer's, an age-related brain disorder, are expected to soar in the next 40 years because people are living longer, and the "baby boom" generation is entering old age.
While the study doesn't directly prove that the increased physical and mental activity together boosted brain function, the trial builds on earlier research linking the two, experts say.
Previous studies have shown that three 30-minute sessions several times a week of brisk walking or weight training has measurable benefits on thinking and memory, Gandy said. "It is now possible to reduce physical exercise to a prescription, just like a pill," he said.
It's not always as straightforward to prescribe mental activities given that different people are drawn to different activities, but that needn't be a deterrent, he noted.
"The new study suggests that the engagement, per se, is probably more important in causing the protective effect, and that the nature of the particular engaging activity is less important," Gandy said.
Whether doing crossword puzzles, learning to play the piano or taking up a foreign language, find something you enjoy and do it regularly, he suggested.
"We have at hand right now the means to sustain cognitive function and delay Alzheimer's by adopting a routine of physical and mental activities available to everyone, everywhere, at no cost," Gandy said.
Because most of the study participants were highly educated, it's possible that the findings aren't applicable to all older adults, the authors acknowledged.
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