These Activities Help Prevent Dementia, According to a New Study

A neuroscientist shares the best activities people of all ages should do now to boost their brain health.

The mental and physical health benefits of hobbies are undeniable. Many of us don’t need studies (though there are so very many) to confirm this—we feel it through the heart rate-reducing act of knitting, or the sense of fulfillment from discovering the literal fruits of our (garden) labour. But new Canadian research finds certain hobbies may offer even more health benefits than others.

According to a recent study from Simon Fraser University and Digital Health Circle, moderate-intensity physical activity, like walking and gardening, and learning activities, like creating art and making music, can lower the risk of cognitive decline in people over age 65, helping to prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. So if you’ve been thinking about exploring your watercolour skills or learning how to play your favourite song on the piano, let this be your motivation to start now.

The 10-year study used a database from the English Longitudinal Study of Aging of more than 4,000 seniors, tracking their activities and cognitive health.

“The participants are real people—I didn’t want to create an artificial type of environment where I force people to go to yoga classes or music classes—their activities are ones they do by themselves,” says study lead Dr. Sylvain Moreno, a computational neuroscientist and Chief Executive Officer and Scientific Director of Digital Health Circle.

Despite previous studies advocating for vigorous activities, like high-intensity exercise, the B.C. researchers were surprised to learn that more accessible activities, like tending to a garden, had the greatest impact. “Most people think they need intense sports for health benefits and that the arts are just for emotional enjoyment—but we now see that’s not true,” says Moreno.

Researchers hope these findings will encourage medical professionals to start prescribing activities to patients, a practice called “social prescribing.” Such activities can be recommended alone or in conjunction with medication.

We chatted with Moreno to learn more about this study and what people of all ages can do now to help prevent dementia.

Why do you think walking, gardening and making art and music offer the biggest cognitive health benefits?

What they have in common is they are challenging and don’t cause suffering—activities that are too challenging, like strenuous physical activities, did not have positive results. Gardening, art and music don’t focus on one specific skill but call for a range of cognitive processes in the brain. And there’s a clear output that can be reached—for example, if you do bad gardening, you’re not going to get any veggies or flowers. These activities have a clear goal.

What about activities like reading, meditation or learning a new language—did they also offer significant cognitive health benefits?

We tested reading and meditation, and the results didn’t come out as significant. We couldn’t test for learning a language because our participants generally weren’t learning languages. But there’s literature that shows learning a second language is positive for the brain of seniors.

How frequently would someone have to engage in one of these activities to benefit from it?

The rule of thumb we have in research right now is three times a week. Repeating the activity three times is important for the brain. Each time shouldn’t be less than an hour. But the goal is for each individual to go at their own level of activity—not something too challenging, and not something too easy.

How groundbreaking are these findings?

First, it’s helpful to know this causal relationship between moderate-intensity physical activities and music and art classes and improved cognitive health because this is something people can start now. Second, the study pushes forward the idea of social prescribing—that a patient can be prescribed, for example, walking three times a week—instead of taking drugs. That movement has started already in the UK and has shown tremendous success there. These scientific findings provide the background to show social prescribing works—certain activities will be beneficial for your brain health.

How long will it take doctors in North America to support and use social prescribing?

We need to spread the word. The more people ask their practitioners about social prescribing, the more likely these practitioners will get informed. The results are so successful in Europe—it’s on its way here.

What can seniors start doing now?

I don’t think any doctors in Canada or the US offer social prescribing right now, but what seniors can do is what’s in the study—join music classes or art classes. Don’t hesitate—learn how to sing, join a choir, learn how to play an instrument.

Do these activities offer brain benefits for people under 60 as well?

They have tons of benefits for younger people. In particular, I’d like kids, like three-year-olds, to take music lessons for tremendous improvement in cognitive, language and attention skills. Our research shows that for the people who took music lessons as a child, and even if they stopped, we could see the changes in their brain—the benefits of those music lessons—when they’re 60 years old.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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