An active mind and body in middle age may reduce risk of dementia

Maintaining an active mind and body in middle age may be linked to a lower risk of dementia, a study by the University of Gothenburg in Sweden has found.

Researchers recruited 800 women with a median age of 47 and studied their lifestyle for 44 years. The participants were surveyed to better understand their conventional mental and physical activities. Mental activities were divided into five areas: intellectual, artistic, manual, club, and religious; and included activities like reading a book, singing in a choir, and religious participation.

In each area, participants were scored on their level of preoccupation with the mental activities, ranging from zero for low activity, one for moderate activity, and two for high activity, with ten being the highest total score obtainable. Researchers then split participants into two groups. 44 percent of participants were classified in the low group with scores of zero to two, and 56 percent in the high group with scores of three to ten.

In evaluating their physical activity, participants were spread into two groups, active and inactive. Light physical activity for a minimum of four hours per week, like walking and gardening, were associated with the active group, in addition to an intense activity like running or swimming, which spanned several times a week. 82 percent of participants were classified in the active group, while 17 percent in the inactive group.

Throughout the span of the study, researchers noted that 194 women went on to develop dementia. 102 progressed to Alzheimer’s disease, 27 to vascular dementia and 41 to mixed dementia.

The findings revealed women who exhibited higher levels of preoccupation with mental activities had a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, nearly 46 percent less likely, and 34 percent less likely to suffer from dementia compared to their counterpart. In the physical activity group, women were 52 percent less likely to develop dementia.

“The researchers took into account other factors that could affect the risk of dementia, such as high blood pressure, smoking and diabetes,” said Ragnhild Larsson, in a news release.

“They also ran the results again after excluding women who developed dementia about halfway through the study to rule out the possibility that those women may have been in the prodromal stage of dementia, with less participation in the activities as an early symptom. The results were similar, except that physical activity was then associated with a 34-percent reduced risk of dementia overall.”

“Of the 438 women with the high level of mental activity, 104 developed dementia, compared to 90 of the 347 women with the low level of activity. Of the 648 women with the high level of physical activity, 159 developed dementia, compared to 35 of the 137 women who were inactive.”

The findings shed light on the role of physical and mental activity in reducing the risk of dementia in middle age.

“These results indicate that these activities in middle age may play a role in preventing dementia in old age and preserving cognitive health,” said Jenna Najar, M.D., lead author of the study. “It’s exciting as these are activities that people can incorporate into their lives pretty easily and without a lot of expense.”

The study was published in the journal Neurology.