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Leisure Activities May Lower Dementia Risk

Researchers find benefits from a range of pleasurable diversions

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Whether it’s taking a bike ride, reading a book or having dinner with friends, leisure appears to be beneficial to your cognitive health, according to a review of dozens of research studies from around the globe.

The metanalysis, published in the online issue of Neurology, found that participation in physical, mental or social activities appeared to lower the risk of dementia among more than 2 million adults, who participated in 38 research studies that were reviewed. “Our research found that leisure activities like making crafts, playing sports or volunteering were linked to a reduced risk of dementia,” study author Lin Lu, president of Peking University Sixth Hospital and director of Peking University Institute for Mental Health in Beijing, said in a statement.

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Adults in the studies were followed for at least three years. Those who engaged in leisure activities had a 17 percent lower risk of developing dementia than those who did not, according to the analysis.

Meanwhile, a separate study published in JAMA Network Open in 2022 finds that older adults who walk, jog, swim laps, play tennis or engage in other leisure activities may have a lower risk of death from any cause, as well as death from heart disease. Taken together, the research demonstrates the importance for older adults to engage in leisure activities that they enjoy and can sustain.

“Although we report differences between the associations of activity types with mortality, all types of activity were associated with lower mortality risk; therefore, finding an activity that older, inactive individuals enjoy (and so may sustain) is likely of a greater benefit than choosing a particular activity based on the differences between risk estimates reported,” the researchers wrote in JAMA.

Not all leisure is equal

Although all mental, physical and social activities provide some brain benefits, the researchers found that participating in mental pursuits may have the greatest impact on lowering the odds of dementia. Here’s the breakdown.

Mental activities A 23 percent lower risk of dementia was found among participants whose pastimes included reading books, magazines or newspapers; watching television; listening to the radio; doing calligraphy; playing cards or checkers; doing crossword puzzles or other puzzles; playing musical instruments; browsing the internet; painting; and engaging in handicrafts.

Physical activities A 17 percent lower risk of dementia was found among participants whose activities included walking for exercise, hiking, jogging or running, swimming, stair climbing, bicycling, using exercise machines, playing ballgames or racket sports, participating in group exercises, doing qigong or yoga, performing calisthenics and dancing.

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Social activities A 7 percent lower risk of dementia was found among participants whose activities included attending an interest class, joining a social center, participating in volunteer work, meeting relatives or friends, attending religious activities and participating in organized group discussions.

“This meta-analysis suggests that being active has benefits, and there are plenty of activities that are easy to incorporate into daily life that may be beneficial to the brain,” Lu said.

He noted that the metanalysis had limitations, including that study participants were not followed for very long. Over a third of the studies had a follow-up of less than six years. Future studies would benefit from involving a greater number of participants, with follow-ups done over a longer time, he suggested. Lu also stated in the report that only a handful of studies in the analysis included social activities and that it was not possible to investigate the extent to which participants engaged in all three types of activities, making it difficult to ascertain “the real impact” that participation in social hobbies has on lowering dementia risk.

Other researchers caution that the cause-and-effect relationship isn’t so clear. A study published in The Lancet last year noted that “long before dementia is diagnosed, there is a progressive reduction in various mental and physical activities, chiefly because its gradual onset causes inactivity, not because inactivity causes dementia.”

The Lancet study included roughly 850,000 women in the United Kingdom who were followed for up to 16 years. Associations between nonparticipation in leisure activities and dementia did not hold up over time.  

The study concluded: “The associations found during the first decade together with the null associations during the second decade are similar to associations observed for other activities, such as physical inactivity. Taken together, they provide strong evidence that early manifestations of the disease progressively reduce participation in various mental and physical activities over a period of several years before dementia gets mentioned in any hospital records, and that participation in such activities has little or no effect on the incidence of dementia.”

Yet, there is some evidence that engaging in mentally stimulating activities, even late in life, may be protective. Mayo Clinic researchers reported in JAMA Neurology in 2017 that such diversions may protect against new-onset mild cognitive impairment, which is the intermediate stage between normal cognitive aging and dementia.

“Our team found that persons who performed these activities at least one to two times per week had less cognitive decline than those who engaged in the same activities only two to three times per month or less,” Yonas Geda, M.D., a psychiatrist and behavioral neurologist then at Mayo Clinic’s Arizona campus, and senior author of the study, said in a statement.

Latest JAMA study

The more recent JAMA study used data from 272,550 adults between the ages of 59 and 82 who had completed questionnaires about their leisure-time activities as part of the long-running National Institutes of Health-AARP diet and health study. The researchers looked at whether participating in equivalent amounts of seven different exercise and recreational activities — including running, cycling, swimming, other aerobic exercise, racquet sports, golf, and walking for exercise — was linked to lowered risk of death.

They found that older adults who engaged in 7.5 to 15 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity each week were at 13 percent lower risk of death from any cause compared with older adults who did not participate in these activities. Older adults who did some recreational activity, though less than the recommended amount, had a 5 percent reduction in risk of death, according to the study.

The researchers noted that playing racquet sports was associated with a 16 percent reduction in risk, and that running was linked to a 15 percent reduction, but all forms of activities were beneficial.

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