Being mentally and physically active in middle age may be tied to a lower risk of developing dementia in old age, according to a new study of 800 Swedish women published in the journal Neurology.
Mental activities include pursuits such as reading, playing instruments, singing in a choir, visiting concerts, gardening, doing needlework or attending religious services.
The findings show that women who engaged in a high level of mental activities were 46 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and 34 percent less likely to develop dementia overall compared to those with a low level of mental activities. Women who were physically active were also 34 percent less likely to develop dementia overall after all other risk factors were taken into account.
“These results indicate that these activities in middle age may play a role in preventing dementia in old age and preserving cognitive health,” said study author Jenna Najar, M.D., from Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg in Sweden.
“It’s exciting as these are activities that people can incorporate into their lives pretty easily and without a lot of expense.”
For the study, the researchers followed 800 Swedish women (average age of 47 at beginning of study) for 44 years. At the start, participants were asked about their mental and physical activities. Mental activities included intellectual activities, such as reading and writing; artistic activities, such as going to a concert or singing in a choir; manual activities, such as needlework or gardening; club activities; and religious activity.
The subjects were given scores in each of the five areas based on how often they participated in mental activities, with a score of zero for no or low activity, one for moderate activity and two for high activity. The total score possible was 10. For example, moderate artistic activity was defined as attending a concert, play or art exhibit during the last six months, while high artistic activity was defined as more frequent visits, playing an instrument, singing in a choir or painting.
Next. participants were divided into two groups. The low group, with 44 percent of participants, had scores of zero to two. The high group, with 56 percent of participants, had scores of three to 10.
For physical activity, the women were split into two groups: active and inactive. The active group ranged from light physical activity such as walking, gardening, bowling or biking for a minimum of four hours per week to regular intense exercise such as running or swimming several times a week or engaging in competitive sports.
A total of 17 percent of the participants were in the inactive group and 82 percent were in the active group.
A total of 194 women developed dementia during the study period. Of these, 102 had Alzheimer’s disease, 27 had vascular dementia and 41 had mixed dementia. A diagnosis of mixed dementia is given when more than one type of dementia is present, such as the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s disease along with the blood vessel changes found in vascular dementia.
The researchers discovered that women who engaged in a high level of mental activities were 46 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and 34 percent less likely to develop dementia overall than the women with the low level of mental activities.
In addition, physically active participants were 52 percent less likely to develop dementia with cerebrovascular disease and 56 percent less likely to develop mixed dementia than the women who were inactive.
Finally, the researchers took into account other factors that could affect the risk of dementia, such as high blood pressure, smoking and diabetes.
They also ran the initial findings again after excluding women who developed dementia about halfway through the study to rule out the possibility that those women may have been in the prodromal stage of dementia, with less participation in the activities as an early symptom.
The results were similar, except that physical activity was then tied to a 34 percent reduced risk of dementia overall.
Source: University of Gothenburg