Researchers in the United States have shown that activities such as arts and crafts and social engagement may reduce memory problems in old age. The research was published in the journal Neurology on 8 April 2015.
The research team carried out the study in 256 people between 85 and 89 years of age, all with normal memory and thinking skills at the beginning of the study. At the start of the study, the researchers took a medical history, including vascular disease and related conditions, such as stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity. The researchers also looked at depressive symptoms, education level and genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s in the volunteers. In addition, they asked participants to complete questionnaires about how much exercise and mentally-engaging activities they had done in midlife (when they were 50 years old) and in late life (a year before their assessment). Over an average of four years, study participants took memory and thinking tests every 15 months. Over the follow-up period, 121 people were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) – a condition characterised by mild memory and thinking difficulties, which can precede dementia.
The team found that the risk of MCI increased with high blood pressure, depressive symptoms and vascular disease, including diabetes. The research team also found that some lifestyle factors were protective. Study participants who said they had taken part in artistic, craft and social activities in both midlife and late life had a lower risk of developing MCI, although the differences were only significant in women. Those who used a computer in later life also had a lower risk of MCI. Participants who did not engage in these kinds of activities had a greater decline in memory and thinking skills compared to those who were socially engaged and took part in activities. The research indicated the need to stay active throughout life, as taking up arts and crafts in late life alone did not reduce the risk of MCI.
Dr Laura Phipps from Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:
“This study adds to previous evidence suggesting that staying mentally active as we age can help to maintain memory and thinking skills. This small study links arts and crafts activities to a lower the risk of mild cognitive impairment, particularly in women, although the associations are weak and the authors did not compare these kinds of task to other types of hobby. The study suggests that midlife could be an important window for engaging in activities to maintain brain health, but researchers still need to unpick the reasons behind this – lack of social engagement in later life may itself indicate underlying brain changes that lead to mild cognitive impairment.
“While this study looked at mild cognitive impairment, a condition which can precede dementia, the researchers did not look at the benefits of arts and crafts in relation to dementia. We do know that eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, not smoking, and keeping blood pressure and weight in check can all help to reduce the risk of dementia.”