Taking part in activities such as chess, writing a journal, or educational classes in older age may help to reduce the risk of dementia, a study has suggested.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 55 million people have the disease worldwide, most of them older people.
However experts have long emphasised that dementia is not an inevitable part of ageing, with being active, eating well and avoiding smoking among the lifestyle choices that can reduce risk.
Now researchers have revealed fresh evidence that challenging the brain could also be beneficial.
Writing in the journal Jama Network Open, researchers in the US and Australia report how they used data from the Australian Aspree Longitudinal Study of Older Persons covering the period from 1 March 2010 to 30 November 2020.
Participants in the study were over the age of 70, did not have a major cognitive impairment or cardiovascular disease when recruited between 2010 and 2014, and were assessed for dementia through regular study visits.
In the first year, participants were asked about their social networks. They were also questioned on whether they undertook certain leisure activities or trips out to venues such as galleries or restaurants, and how frequently: never, rarely, sometimes, often or always.
The team analysed data from 10,318 participants, taking into account factors such as age, sex, smoking status, education, socioeconomic status, and whether participants had other diseases such as diabetes.
The results reveal that for activities such as writing letters or journals, taking educational classes or using a computer, increasing the frequency of participation by one category, for example from “sometimes” to “often”, was associated with an 11% drop in the risk of developing dementia over a 10-year period. Similarly, increased frequency of activities such as card games, chess or puzzle-solving was associated with a 9% reduction in dementia risk.
“In contrast, interpersonal networks, social activities and external outings were not associated with dementia risk in this sample,” the team write, although they suggest that might be because there were too few participants who were lonely or isolated for an effect to be seen.
It also appeared that more frequently undertaking creative endeavours such as painting or woodworking was associated with a smaller reduced risk of dementia, although further analysis suggested the effect was largely among men.
The team say the trends held even when they excluded participants who developed dementia within three years of recruitment.
However, the study has limitations, including that it is based on observational data and that participants may have had healthier lifestyles and be more engaged with their community than the general population.
James Rowe, professor of cognitive neurology at the University of Cambridge, who was not involved in the work, said the study would be helpful to guide personal and public policy decisions to reduce the future burden of dementia. He added that it was a valuable addition to the evidence that an enriched lifestyle, with creative and literary activities, was associated with a lower risk of being diagnosed with such conditions.
“But before spending hours on ‘brain games’ we need to remember that this was not a placebo-controlled interventional trial,” he said. “This means we don’t yet know what is cause and effect – the ability to take part in the ‘good’ activities might indicate other health, educational and socioeconomic advantages that are the reason for less dementia.”