Staying mentally and physically engaged may reduce a person’s risk of developing dementia, or a loss of cognitive function, later in life, new study shows.
The study—published last month in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology—analysed participants’ self-reported behaviour over the course of a decade, and found that patterns of frequent exercise and physical activity, housework and chores, and visits with family and friends all led to a lower risk of multiple types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
“The treatment for dementia is still limited so far. Therefore, it is important to know if some easy changes, such as adopting a healthier lifestyle, can be effective interventions for the primary prevention of dementia,” study author Huan Song, MD, PhD a professor at Sichuan University in Chengdu, China, told Health. “By engaging more frequently in healthy physical and mental activities, people may reduce their risk of dementia, irrespective of their inherited genetic susceptibility.”
Even though there are still many questions surrounding dementia risk and treatment, here’s what experts had to say about the study, how brain function and physical and mental activity are connected, and how to best adopt these lifestyle changes to reduce your risk or prevent dementia.
Specific activities associated with preventing dementia
For the study, researchers analysed data from the UK Biobank, a large-scale biomedical database with health and genetic information from more than half a million UK residents.
A total of 501,376 dementia-free participants, with an average age of 56, were followed for an average of 11 years. At the start of their recruitment, participants self-reported their physical and mental activity levels, including housework-related activity, time spent socialising, and how often they used electronic devices.
Over the course of the approximately 11-year follow-up period, 5,185 patients were diagnosed with dementia. According to researchers, participants’ physical and mental activity levels were associated with dementia risk.
People who stayed active in their routines reaped the most benefits. Those who frequently exercised had a 35% lower risk of dementia, while regularly doing household chores and frequently seeing friends and family lowered dementia risk by 21% and 15%, respectively.
Researchers also took into account genetic risk factors for developing dementia, along with family history, and found that lifestyle factors still provided benefits.
“We got similar findings when performing separate analyses for subgroups of participants with different disease susceptibility to dementia,” said Dr Song. “Our findings underscore a universal importance of physical and mental activity on the reduction of dementia.”
More evidence of a link between brain health and lifestyle choices
Although the new study provides further evidence about the link between lifestyle choices and brain health, the idea that physical and mental activity impacts cognition is not a new one.
David Reuben, MD, chief of the division of geriatrics at the UCLA Center for Health Sciences, points to a 2015 study published in The Lancet—named the Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability or ‘FINGER’ study—which found that a healthy diet, exercise, mental stimulation, and cardiovascular health all acted to reduce the risk of dementia.
Another ongoing study—the US Study to Protect Brain Health Through Lifestyle Intervention to Reduce Risk, or ‘US POINTER‘—is seeking to do something similar. With funding from the Alzheimer’s Association, the study is trying to parse out whether cognitive decline can be prevented through structured or self-guided programs that focus on lifestyle changes.
As for why these lifestyle changes may help reduce dementia risk, researchers don’t yet fully understand the link.
“Some people think there’s a fairly sizable vascular component,” Dr Reuben, who was not involved in the study, told Health. It’s possible that staying active may help keep blood vessels healthy—which could also translate to brain health.
“In terms of the intellectual stimulation, socialisation—that may be a little more difficult to explain,” Dr Reuben added. Staying intellectually stimulated, he said, may mean stronger brain cell connections, which could possibly protect against cognitive decline.
However, because the study only showed an association between physical and mental activity and dementia risk, not a causation, the research could also just show that people who are healthier are better able to engage in those activities, according to Vijay Ramanan, MD, PhD, a senior associate consultant and assistant professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic.
“The bigger picture is that remaining engaged in day to day things which can be rewarding, can serve functions related to independence,” Dr Ramanan, who was not involved in the study, told Health. “And maybe, in some cases, can offer a little bit of challenge and stimulation to the mind and the body.”
How to incorporate more physical, mental, and social activities into your schedule
According to Dr Song, the results of this study can be pretty far-reaching—meaning anyone can potentially benefit from adding more of a routine to their days, even if finding ways to be more active or spending time with family and friends isn’t so easily accessible.
The key here is to think of lifestyle changes—not activities you do only rarely.
“I wouldn’t view any of these things as a direct cause-and-effect in the short-term,” Dr Ramanan said. “So in other words, it’s not that if you go outside and are able to play some tennis that therefore for the next week your cognitive functions are going to be better.”
Instead, it’s more about “Are you able to maintain consistent engagement over long periods of time in things that you enjoy doing, that you find rewarding, and that do give a little bit of challenge physically, socially, and cognitively,” Dr Ramanan said.
The National Institute on Aging (NIA) suggests trying the following activities—that can also boost brain health—as you age:
- Picking up a regular gardening, biking, or walking routine
- Trying yoga or journaling to manage stress
- Taking a new class or joining a new club
- Maintaining your regular healthcare provider check-ins.
“What everybody wants to do, is they want to take a pill and prevent [dementia],” Dr Reuben added. “These things are harder, they’re lifestyle changes.”
Despite the challenge, without a treatment for dementia, lifestyle changes for the sake of prevention is the best medical professionals can offer right now.
“In early and mid life, engaging in those good habits and building up the foundation for lifelong physical, social and cognitive engagement, I think is critical,” Dr Ramanan said. “It’s all hands on deck. We need every good option for management to slow and prevent, and hopefully, even in the future, reverse some of these devastating illnesses.”
This story first appeared on www.health.com
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