Study: Visit friends, take a walk or, better yet, read to lower dementia risk

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Study: Visit friends, take a walk or, better yet, read to lower dementia risk

Leisure activities are linked to a 17% lower risk of dementia for people who engage in them versus those who do not, a new study suggests. Photo by Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

To lower the risk of dementia, joining a social club is good. Walking or bicycling is better. And reading or playing games or musical instruments is best, new research suggests.

These are among the findings of a meta-analysis, which reviewed previous studies on physical, cognitive and social leisure activities and dementia.

The study was published Wednesday in Neurology, the online journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

Previous research has shown that leisure activities are linked to health benefits “such as a lower cancer risk, a reduction of atrial fibrillation, and a person’s perception of their own well-being,” Dr. Lin Lu, a study coauthor, said in a news release.

But he cited “conflicting evidence” about the role of leisure activities in preventing dementia — a general term for loss of memory and other mental abilities severe enough to interfere with everyday activities. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type.

Yet, the new analysis “found that leisure activities like making crafts, playing sports or volunteering were linked to a reduced risk of dementia,” said Lu, principal investigator at IDG/McGovern Institute for Brain Research at Peking University in Beijing, China.

The researchers reviewed 38 studies from around the world involving a total of 2 million-plus people who did not have dementia, according to their paper. Over the course of the studies, 74,700 participants developed the condition, including 2,848 cases of Alzheimer’s disease and 1,423 cases of vascular dementia.

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 55 million people worldwide live with dementia, with nearly 10 million new cases arising annually.

In the United States, an estimated 5 million adults 65 years and older had dementia in 2014, and the number is projected to climb to nearly 14 million by 2060, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

Study participants, who were followed for at least three years, provided information on their leisure activities via questionnaires or interviews.

“Leisure activities” were defined as those activities in which people engaged for enjoyment or well-being and were divided into mental, physical and social activities.

After adjusting for factors such as age, sex and education, researchers said they found that leisure activities overall were linked to a 17% lower risk of dementia for people who engaged in leisure activities versus those who did not.

Specifically, people who participated in “mental activities” had a 23% lower risk of dementia. These were described as mainly consisting of “intellectual” pursuits, and included “reading or writing for pleasure, watching television, listening to the radio, playing games or musical instruments, using a computer and making crafts,” the release said.

People who participated in physical activities, included “walking, running, swimming, bicycling, using exercise machines, playing sports, yoga, and dancing,” had a 17% lower risk of dementia.

And those individuals participating in social activities that involved communication with others — and “included attending a class, joining a social club, volunteering, visiting with relatives or friends, or attending religious activities” — had a 7% lower risk of dementia.

“This meta-analysis suggests that being active has benefits, and there are plenty of activities that are easy to incorporate into daily life that may be beneficial to the brain,” Lu said.

A study limitation was that people reported their own physical and mental activity, “so they may not have remembered and reported the activities correctly,” the release said.

Lu said future studies should include larger sample sizes and longer follow-up time to “reveal more links” between leisure activities and dementia.

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