It identified several aspects of a person's lifestyle that can have a major impact on mental function: exercise, staying socially integrated, participating in mentally stimulating activities and maintaining an optimistic, agreeable, goal-oriented attitude.
Though exercise had a powerful impact on mental function, the type of exercise made a difference.
In studies that asked older people how physically active they were, those who reported doing the most exercise had somewhat better mental functioning than those who were more sedentary, but the effect wasn't dramatic.
However, people who took part in studies that put them on a regular aerobic exercise program saw substantial gains in mental functioning.
Among older adults, even those who do relatively more exercise than their peers probably aren't doing all that much, Wilson said.
"Left to their own devices, most older people in this country don't exercise all that much at all," Wilson said. "Any exercise is good, but actually doing a regular program of aerobic exercise is better."
Walking, the most commonly cited exercise, can be part of an aerobic exercise program, but the pace must be fast enough to raise the heart rate.
Recent research has looked at whether specific products or programs, such as video games, improve cognitive functioning in older people. Although there is nothing on the market that is scientifically proven to increase memory and thinking skills, Wilson said, he thinks such products could be available soon.
But you don't have to go out and buy something to engage in intellectually stimulating activities, said Dr. Gary Kennedy, director of geriatric psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.
Doing a crossword puzzle, playing chess or learning a language can fit the bill.
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