We don’t usually start thinking about the possibility of dementia until our senior years. But scientists are now saying that maintaining an active life—including both mental and physical activities—in middle age might be a powerful protector against diseases like Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
A new study published in the journal Neurology conducted by researchers in Sweden has found that keeping active in middle age mentally and physically can have a big payoff later in life. Mental activities like reading, playing instruments, singing in a choir, visiting concerts, gardening, doing needlework or attending religious services and physical activities ranging in strenuousness from walking, gardening, bowling or biking for a minimum of four hours per week to intense exercise like running or swimming several times per week made a significant difference in dementia risk later in life.
“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 the 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.”
The 800 female participants were an average age of 47 at the beginning of the study and were followed for an average of 44 years over the course of their lives. They ranked their activity level at the beginning of the study and were given a score of low, moderate or high mental activity based on how often they participated in the activity. For example, women who were ranked moderate said they attended 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.
For physical activity, the women were only divided into two groups: active and inactive. Inactive Throughout as less than four hours per week of light physical activity; active was anything above that. Seventeen percent of the participants were in the inactive group and 82 percent were in the active.
Throughout the study, researchers gave six cognitive tests to the women. They also tracked who developed dementia; of the original 800, 194 developed dementia. Of those, 102 were cases of Alzheimer’s disease, 27 had vascular dementia, and 41 had mixed dementia with more than one type of dementia present.
When they compared the groups at the end of the study, they found that women who were categorized as having a high mental activity were 46 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s and 34 percent less likely to develop any kind of dementia in comparison with the low mental activity group. When they looked at physical activity, those who were in the active group 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.
The researchers controlled for other factors correlated with dementia risk, like smoking and diabetes. They also found the same statistics proved true when they removed people who developed dementia early in the study to allow for the fact that they could have been in the early stages of dementia at the beginning of the study, and thus their mental and physical activity had slowed down.
This study echoes results other studies have found that show physical exercise and staying engaged can be powerful weapons against dementia. But this study is unique in that it followed women for such a long period of time, suggesting that it’s not just during senior years that your brain can benefit from mental and physical exercise. And without a cure or treatment for Alzheimer’s or dementia, physical and mental exercise throughout your life may be the best way to prevent neurodegenerative disease later in life.