Cognitive Activity Is Associated with Cognitive Function over Time in a Diverse Group of Older Adults, Independent of Baseline Biomarkers

Neuroepidemiology. 2023;57(4):229-237. doi: 10.1159/000531208. Epub 2023 Jun 1.


Background: More frequent engagement in cognitive activity is associated with better cognitive function in older adults, but the mechanism of action is not fully understood. Debate remains whether increased cognitive activity provides a meaningful benefit for cognitive health or if decreased cognitive activity represents a prodrome of cognitive impairment. Neurological biomarkers provide a novel way to examine this relationship in the context of cognitive aging.

Methods: We examined the association of self-reported cognitive activity, cognitive function, and concentrations of three biomarkers in community-dwelling participants of a longitudinal, population-based study. Cognitive activity was measured at baseline by asking participants to rate the frequency of 7 activities: (1) viewing television, (2) listening to the radio, (3) visiting a museum, (4) playing games, such as cards, checkers, crosswords, or other puzzles or games, (5) reading books, (6) reading magazines, and (7) reading newspapers. Cognitive function was measured with a battery of four tests (Mini-Mental State Examination, Digit Symbol Test, and the immediate and delayed recall of the East Boston Test) averaged into a composite score. At baseline, we evaluated the concentration of total tau (tau), neurofilament light (NfL), and glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP).

Results: The study sample comprised 1,168 older participants, primarily non-Hispanic Blacks (60%) and women (63%). At baseline, they were an average of 77 years old with 12.6 years of education. Mixed-effects models showed that cognitive activity was associated with better cognitive functioning at baseline and over time. These relationships remained after each biomarker was added to the model. Over an average of 6.4 years of follow-up, cognitive activity was associated with cognitive decline in the model with tau (estimate = 0.0123; p value = 0.03) and was mildly attenuated in the models with NfL (estimate = 0.0110; p value = 0.06) and GFAP (estimate = 0.0111; p value = 0.06). Biomarkers did not modify the association between cognitive activity and cognitive function over time.

Conclusion: The benefits of cognitive activity on cognition appear to be independent of biomarkers: tau, NfL, and GFAP, measured at baseline. More frequent cognitive activity may benefit the cognitive health of older adults with a wide range of potential disease risk and presentations.

Keywords: Blood biomarkers; Cognitive activity; Cognitive function.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Alzheimer Disease* / complications
  • Biomarkers
  • Cognition
  • Cognitive Dysfunction* / complications
  • Cognitive Dysfunction* / diagnosis
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Mental Status and Dementia Tests
  • tau Proteins


  • tau Proteins
  • Biomarkers