In a new study of people over 85 years, those who said they did things like quilting, painting or book clubs during middle age were less likely to develop memory impairments that may precede dementia.
Lead author, Rosebud O. Roberts of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minn. said based on these results, using the brain for cognitive and social activities appears to preserve cognitive function, or keep the neurons stimulated.
“What is surprising from our study is that you have to begin these activities in midlife and continue through old age,” Roberts said.
Those who said they participated in arts, crafts like sculpting or woodworking, social activities, or travel during midlife were about as half as likely to develop mild cognitive impairment as those who did not, the authors report in the journal Neurology.
“In a sense, what the findings suggest is that such activities engage the brain in a way that keeps it ‘alive’,” Roberts said. “As you use your brain for these activities, we believe that you preserve or maintain function of the brain cells; you may also develop new neurons or neuronal connections that preserve memory and thinking skills.”
Physical exercise may help preserve brain function as well, she said.
“Continued education, learning new things – taking classes in a new area of learning, may also yield positive benefits for cognitive function,” she said.
People with high blood pressure, depression and other chronic conditions were more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment, as has been found in other studies, according to Dr. James E.Galvin of NYU Langone Medical Center in New York.
“That was a confirmation of a lot of things we already knew,” Galvin said. “What I thought was more interesting was to begin to look at something that reduced the risk. That’s what people want to know.”
That can include developing old activities and picking up new ones, he said.
“If you have been knitting since you were 6, at some point it’s not a cognitively stimulating activity,” he said. “If you’ve never painted before, that is stimulating.”
However genetics and other factors also play a role, and there is no guarantee that trying activities like knitting or book clubs will stave off cognitive decline for every person, Galvin said.
“I know marathon-running vegan astrophysicists who develop Alzheimer’s disease and Twinkie-eating couch potatoes who don’t,” he said. “There’s no guarantee.”
April 8, 2015