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Walking and other leisure activities can boost brain health and reduce dementia risk

A new study looked at the impact of specific activities, from walking to watching TV, on reducing risk of dementia as you age.
/ Source: TODAY

Time spent on fun leisure activities might have the extra benefit of protecting your brain and lowering the risk of dementia, a new study suggests.

An analysis that combined data from 38 previous studies with more than 2 million participants from around the world revealed that activities such as solving crossword puzzles, playing musical instruments, hiking, swimming, yoga, volunteering and meeting with friends could lower the risk of developing dementia, according to the report published in Neurology

Certain leisure activities tied to reduced dementia risk

“Previous studies have shown that leisure activities were associated with various health benefits, such as a lower cancer risk, a reduction of atrial fibrillation, and a person’s perception of their own well-being,” study co-author Lin Lu, of Peking University Sixth Hospital in Beijing, China, said in a statement. “However, there is conflicting evidence of the role of leisure activities in the prevention of dementia. Our research found that leisure activities like making crafts, playing sports or volunteering were linked to a reduced risk of dementia.”

The authors did not respond to a request for comment.

To take a closer look at the impact of leisure activities on dementia, Lu and his colleagues scoured the medical literature for studies that addressed the topic. Among the 2,154,818 participants who did not have dementia at the beginning of those studies, there were 74,700 dementia diagnoses during follow-ups.

The participants’ ages at the outset of the studies varied widely —mean ages ranging from 45 to 93 — as did the number of years they were followed. The longest follow-up time window was 26.6 years for participants whose average age was 45 at the beginning of the study, and the shortest was three years for participants whose mean age was 93 at the start of the study.

Overall, there was a reduction of 17% in the risk of developing dementia no matter what type of leisure activity people chose. When the researchers categorized activities as physical, cognitive, or social, the impact varied, with cognitive activities — including reading or writing for pleasure, watching television, listening to the radio, playing games or musical instruments, using a computer, or making crafts — associated with the largest reduction in risk, at 23%.

Walking may reduce dementia risk up to 17%

Participation in physical activities, such as walking, running, swimming, bicycling, using exercise machines, playing sports, yoga and dancing, was associated with a 17% reduction in risk. Engaging in social activities, such as attending a class, joining a social club, volunteering, visiting relatives or friends and attending religious activities, was associated with a 13% reduction in risk.

“It’s exciting for people to hear that there is a choice they can make for their own brain health,” Emily Rogalski, Ph.D., associate director of the Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer Disease at Northwestern University, told TODAY. “It’s important to be able to provide hope in a time where Alzheimer’s treatments have been somewhat controversial and disappointing.” (Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia in older adults.)

The new findings are "consistent with what we see ... in our research with super-agers, people who are over age 80 and have memories as good as 50 and 60 year olds — the Betty Whites of the world," Rogalski said.

Staying active mentally, physically and socially appears to have a benefit to the brain, Rogalski said. But not all activities are equally beneficial, she added.

Brisk walking is best to reduce dementia risk

When it comes to cognitive exercises, novelty is important, Rogalski said, adding that playing the same games over and over won’t be as valuable as switching to more challenging ones periodically.

The type of activity is important, agreed Dr. Riddhi Patira, an assistant professor of neurology at the University of Pittsburgh and an investigator at the school's Alzheimer’s research center. “One of the things I don’t support is the idea that watching TV is beneficial,” she said. “Watching the same Hallmark movie again and again would not be a beneficial activity.”

“You have to be cautious in interpreting the study’s findings because they clumped everything together,” Patira said. “So maybe a documentary or something else that is stimulating might be beneficial.”

Similarly, working in the garden for 10 minutes may not help, Patira said. And if it’s walking, it should be brisk walking, she added.

Patira suspected that some of reductions in risk reported in the study might be due to the beneficial impact of these activities on sleep.