Older adults who participate in a variety of different activities are able to reduce their risk of developing dementia, according to a new study from researchers at Simon Fraser University.
The team found that engaging in a combination of hobbies, such as light exercise and connecting with loved ones, can reduce memory decline in adults between the ages of 65 and 89 more than any individual activity.
Their findings, published in the journal Aging, show that the effects of engaging in a combination of activities increased with age and was more impactful than historical factors such as education level or baseline memory.
The study examined data from the National Institute on Aging’s Health and Retirement Study and included 3,210 participants aged 65 to 89. Study participants were asked how often they engaged in 33 activities from ‘never’ to ‘at least once a month’ to ‘several times a month’ up to ‘daily’.
Researchers created a machine learning model to analyze the activities’ impact on memory. The activities ranged from hobbies such as baking or cooking, reading, playing cards and games to walking for 20 minutes, or socializing with family and friends through letters, email, phone calls or in-person visits.
“Our study results show that the risk of developing dementia can be reduced through a combination of active, daily activities — things like using a computer and playing word games,” says study co-author Sylvain Moreno, an associate professor at SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT) and CEO/scientific director of the Digital Health Circle, based at SFU.
“Scientists believed that genetics were the main factor influencing cognitive health but our findings show the reverse. With age, your choice of daily activities is more important than your genetics or your current cognitive skills,” Moreno adds.
The researchers suggest their study results could have a significant impact on aging health policies, including promoting new social prescribing programs to help older adults keep mentally active into their senior years.
Social prescribing involves connecting older adults to a range of activities in the community such as gardening, art classes or volunteering.
Older adults are more at risk of developing dementia and other neurodegenerative disorders for which there is no cure, which is why prevention is so important.
“Today, around 55 million people have dementia and this number will almost triple by 2050 with an aging population,” says Moreno. “Care for patients with dementia is challenging, labour-intensive, and chronic, which generates high costs for health systems.”
Their research demonstrates that strategies for prevention are effective and a social prescribing approach to healthcare can help people maintain healthy cognitive function as they age.