BRIGHTON, England — The key to a healthy brain into old age might just hinge on how active you are in your community. It turns out the more social leisure activities you do — from joining a local club or playing sports, to volunteering or participating in a religious group — the more likely you’ll slow cognitive decline. That’s according to an “exciting” study from the United Kingdom, which offers especially good news for people who have dementia in their family.
Keeping the brain active helps store healthy neurons, improving thinking skills and our “cognitive reserve” as we get older. Researchers say other ways to ensure a stronger cognitive reserve includes artistic activities, going to college, having a stimulating job and reading. Even listening to the radio, visiting museums, gardening, playing board games or filling out crosswords and other puzzles helps.
Going to college doesn’t just mean heading to school in your early years. According to study authors from the Brighton and Sussex Medical School, continuing to learn over a lifetime provides a buffer against conditions like Alzheimer’s disease — even for those who performed poorly at school.
“These results are exciting because they indicate cognitive ability is subject to factors throughout our lifetime and taking part in an intellectually, socially and physically active lifestyle may help ward off cognitive decline and dementia.” says study co-author Dr. Dorina Cadar in a statement.
Previous studies show that people with low test scores in childhood are more likely to have a steeper mental decline in old age than people with high scores.
“It is heartening to find building up one’s cognitive reserve may offset the negative influence of low childhood cognition for people who might not have benefited from an enriching childhood and offer stronger mental resilience until later in life,” adds Cadar.
‘Broad, long-term benefits in investing in high education’
The findings are based on 1,184 Britons born in 1946. They took cognition tests when they were eight years old and again when they were 69. Those who engaged in six or more leisure pursuits such as adult education classes, clubs, volunteer work, social activities and gardening scored an average 1.53 points more than peers who did four or less.
Those with a professional or intermediate level job scored an average 1.5 points more than partly skilled or unskilled counterparts. And those with a bachelor’s degree or other higher education qualifications scored 1.22 points more on average than those with none.
A tool called the “cognitive reserve index” rated brainpower. It combines education level at 26 with participation in leisure activities at 43 and occupation up to 53. Reading ability was also tested as a measure of overall lifelong learning separate from education and occupation.
The cognitive test participants took at age 69 has a maximum total score of 100. Scores ranged from 53 to 100 – with the average 92. For every unit increase in childhood test scores, cognitive reserve index and reading ability, test scores in old age increased by an average 0.10, 0.07 and 0.22 points, respectively.
The study also finds for those with a higher cognitive reserve index and reading ability, scores on cognitive tests did not fall as rapidly as people with lower scores, regardless of results at eight.
“From a public health and societal perspective, there may be broad, long term benefits in investing in high education, widening opportunities for leisure activities and providing cognitive challenging activities for people, especially those working in less skilled occupations,” writes Professor Michal Schnaider Beeri, of Icahn School of Medicine, Mount Sinai, New York, in an editorial that accompanies the results.
‘Finding ways to regularly challenge your brain’ protects against dementia
The number of dementia cases worldwide will triple to more than 150 million by 2050. With no cure in sight there’s an increasing focus on protective behaviours.
“It adds to a popular theory the more you regularly challenge your brain, the less likely you are to experience memory and thinking problems in your later years,” adds Katherine Gray, a research communications manager at the UK’s Alzheimer’s Society which partially funded the long-term study. “From childhood to adulthood, participants who kept their brain active, whether it’s in education, their career or by taking part in complex hobbies, had better thinking abilities by the age of 69.
“While there are many risk factors related to developing dementia, it is hopeful to know engaging in mentally stimulating activities and finding ways to regularly challenge your brain can help reduce the development of memory and thinking problems in the future,” she adds.
The study is published in the journal Neurology.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.