Intellectual pursuits – even betting on horses – can help ward off dementia, study findings suggest

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Racehorses emerge from the starting gates at Suffolk Downs, East Boston, Massachusetts. Photo: Anthony92931 (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Intellectual pursuits, which include betting on horses, appear to decrease the dementia risk. Photo: Anthony92931 (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A Chinese study found that older people who took part in intellectual activities, such as reading, playing games or even betting on horse racing, had a lower risk of developing dementia, or might delay its onset.

The study followed 15,582 community-living Chinese individuals aged 65 or older who were considered free of dementia. They were followed for several years.

Allen Lee and his colleagues, writing in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, said dementia was a major public health concern worldwide, and finding ways to delay or prevent its onset was now a key priority,

They set out to determine whether intellectual activity reduced the risk of dementia in older adults, independent of other healthy lifestyle practices such as regular physical exercise, adequate fruit and vegetable intake, and not smoking.

The study team found that daily participation in intellectual activities was associated with a significantly lower risk of dementia several years later, independent of other health behaviors, physical health limitations, and socio-demographic factors.

Active participation in intellectual activities, even in late life, might help prevent dementia in older adults, they concluded.

The researchers said associations between late-life participation in intellectual activities and decreased odds of developing dementia have been reported in other studies.

Their study was conducted through Elderly Health Centres in Hong Kong, where 15,582 Chinese individuals, 63.9% of whom were women, were first evaluated in 2005. Follow-up assessments were performed from 2006 to 2012.

In the follow-ups, self-reported information on participation in intellectual pursuits within a month before assessment was collected.

Examples of intellectual activities were reading books, newspapers, or magazines; playing board games, Mahjong, or card games; and betting on horse racing.

Among the 15,582 individuals, 1349 (8.7%) developed dementia during a median follow-up period of five years.

“We found that late-life participation in intellectual activities was associated with lower risk of incident dementia several years later.

“This association was not fully explained by other health lifestyle practices (regular physical exercise, adequate fruit and vegetable intake, and not smoking) nor by a wide range of physical health problems and limitations (cardiovascular risk factors, depression, sensory impairments, and poor mobility).

“These findings suggest that active participation in intellectual activities can reduce the risk of, or delay the onset of, dementia.”

They found that not all types of leisure activities were associated with decreased risk of dementia.

In particular, they did not find an association between social or recreational activities and lower risk of dementia.

“It may be that, given the very high level of participation in recreational and social activities in our cohort, a ceiling effect might mask any association with risk of dementia,” they said.

“However, as these activities are in general more passive and less cognitively demanding than intellectual activities, we speculate that recreational and social activities might not be as effective as intellectual activities in preventing dementia.”

Given the growing older population worldwide, promoting regular engagement in intellectual activities might help delay or prevent dementia, they said.

Lee ATC, Richards M, Chan WC, Chiu HFK, Lee RSY, Lam LCW. Association of Daily Intellectual Activities With Lower Risk of Incident Dementia Among Older Chinese Adults. JAMA Psychiatry. Published online May 30, 2018. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2018.0657

The study can be read here

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