Keeping dementia at bay: how to keep your brain active and energized
Crafty Ways to Keep Dementia at Bay
Arts, crafts, social, and computer activities could keep your brain healthier as you age.
By Bara Vaida
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Pursuing a hobby in middle age may prevent more than just boredom. A recent Mayo Clinic study found that people who engage in and stick with creative and social activities in midlife may maintain better brain function by the time they hit their mid-eighties than those who don’t.
Researchers asked 256 people aged 85 or older about the lifestyles they led and hobbies they had in midlife and late life and then measured the progression of mild cognitive impairment – a common precursor to dementia – in each participant over about four years.
“The greatest benefits [we] observed [were] in people who began [creative and social] activities in midlife and continued through late life.” says Rosebud Roberts, MB ChB, lead author of the April 2014 study and professor of epidemiology and neurology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
More than one-third of Americans over the age of 85 have Alzheimer’s disease as of 2015, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, and that number is only expected to surge as baby boomers gets older.
“This study is important because it says that the life you live makes a difference in your risk of having Alzheimer’s,” says George Perry, MD, dean of the College of Sciences and Biology at the University of Texas, San Antonio, and editor in chief of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. “Contrary to what you might think, it isn’t pre-determined. You can do something to lower your risk.”
The study, which was published in the journal Neurology, followed participants of the Mayo Clinic’s ongoing Study of Aging. Those who had engaged in artistic, craft, and social activities in midlife and late life had significantly lower risk of developing mild cognitive impairment – 77 percent, 45 percent, and 55 percent, respectively – than the less engaged study participants. What’s more, those who reported regular computer use in late life showed a 53 percent lower mild cognitive impairment risk than those who did not.
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The arts and crafts activities reported by the subjects covered a wide range, including ceramics, quilting, pottery, sewing, woodworking, painting, drawing, and sculpting. Social activities included going to the movies, plays, concerts, and events with friends. Types of computer use included playing computer games, emailing, shopping online, and surfing the Internet, Roberts says.
Scientists believe that creative and social activities help develop new connections between neurons in the brain and assist brain cells in maintaining their functions as we age, says Lyn Geboy, PhD, an environmental gerontologist and principal at Cygnet Innovations Group, a healthcare consulting firm in Milwaukee that designs programs to support older adults, their families, and people with dementia.
“The adage ‘use it or lose it’ totally relates to the brain,” Dr. Geboy says.
It’s never too late to start a new hobby: Participants who began creative activities later in life also showed a lower risk of developing cognitive decline, but the researchers found it was those who started artistic, craft, and social activities in midlife who benefited the most.
“The overall implications from the study would be to begin [creative activities] by age 50 and continue throughout life,” Roberts says.
But more research is needed on the subject. As noted in the Mayo Clinic study, it is possible that people who are actively engaged in creative and social activities are simply mentally healthy; the results of this study show correlation between those activities and decreased risk of mild cognitive impairment, not necessarily causation.
That said, finding new passions rarely come with downsides, especially after retirement. With enough types of creative and social hobbies to fit every interest, why not try something new?
“The key is to do whatever fits your lifestyle,” Roberts says.
How to Discover New Hobbies
Geboy offers these easy tips to find a new creative outlet that can keep your mind healthy and engaged as you age:
- Visit your recreation or senior center.If the idea of trying something new on your own seems daunting, this is an excellent place to start. Many communities have recreation and/or senior centers that offer long lists of exciting activities on a daily basis. Find a senior center near you, and then look at the activity offerings, which can include everything from walking clubs to discussion groups.
- Visit a local museum.Don’t just do a quick walkthrough. Take time to really look at the exhibits. Consider the reasons why you like – or dislike – a piece. Note which pieces of art or information you find particularly inspiring.
- Take a class.Drawing, knitting, making pottery, creative writing, or even cooking – the subject can be anything that interests you. Focus on learning this new activity rather than making a “perfect" final product.
- Play the part of reporter.Interview your spouse, family members, or friends. Ask them about their favorite places to visit and why, their favorite childhood memories, or a skill they’d still like to learn. Their answers may inspire you to write a short story or poem.
- Try a new physical activity. Ever wanted to learn ballroom dancing, become a yogi, or even ? Seize the day! To amplify the fun, ask a friend to learn with you.
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