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Exercise and Socialize to Prevent Dementia

The research shows physical, social, cognitive activity reduces dementia risk.

Key points

  • A systematic review measured how leisure activities affected dementia risk.
  • Data shows that physical and social activity significantly decreases dementia risk.
  • There was also some evidence that cognitive activity decreases dementia risk, but the data is not as robust.

We often think of engaging in leisure activities as an important component of a well-balanced life. Now, a new systematic review finds that leisure activities of all kinds reduce your risk of developing dementia later in life.

The review article, published last month in the journal Neurology, pulled together data from 38 studies to measure whether leisure activities were linked to a reduced risk of dementia. Altogether, the studies followed more than two million participants each for three years or more. During the study periods, more than 74,000 participants developed dementia.

The researchers split leisure activities into three categories: physical, cognitive and social activities.

The studies on physical activity included a broad range of activities including walking, running, swimming, dancing, participating in sports and lifting weights. The meta-analysis found participants who exercised regularly had a 17% lower risk of developing dementia compared with those who did not even when controlling for age, education and gender. The authors stressed that it didn’t matter what type of activity participants undertook, as long as they remained physically active.

Social activities provided similar reductions in dementia risk, the review found. Researchers only identified four studies looking at the connection between social activity and dementia risk; nonetheless, they measured benefits for participants who regularly engaged with others. Examples of social activities include taking a class, joining a social center, participating in volunteer work, meeting relatives or friends, attending religious activities and participating in organized group discussions.

Social activities may provide benefits because emotional and social supports reduce levels of depression and stress; it may also be that people who are socially active are more likely to engage in physical and cognitive activities as well.

The study also found that cognitive activities reduce the risk of developing dementia, most likely through helping to improve memory, processing speed and reasoning skills, but the data wasn’t as strong compared to physical and social activity.

Part of the problem is defining of “cognitive activity.” In this review, three of the nine studies on the link between cognitive activity and dementia classified watching television as a cognitive activity, even though it may not have the same benefits as other activities, such as playing chess, reading or doing crossword puzzles.

The take-home message: Staying active – physically, socially and cognitively – are proven was to reduce your risks of developing dementia later in life.

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