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Early Protection = Prevention

Swedish researchers have investigated whether leisure activities undertaken as young adults can later protect against mental decay. They have also discovered gender differences.

Hardly any other field is as concerned with research as mental decline. In view of an aging society and a growing world population, the number of people with dementia is rising sharply. So far, there is no effective therapy. But researchers say that the number of people suffering from dementia could be significantly reduced if risk factors were consistently combated from childhood (1).

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It is known, for example, that lack of education, obesity, high blood pressure or hearing loss have a negative effect on mental future. However, there has been evidence for some time that people’s leisure activities may affect their mental deterioration. For example, various studies suggest a protective effect of sports and cognitively stimulating leisure activities. However, many of these studies have one problem: their short time span. Most studies only run for months or a few years.

Swedish researchers have now used 340 twins to investigate whether the leisure activities of middle-aged people still have an influence on their cognitive abilities decades later (2). The scientists around Linda Hassing have concentrated on activities that people under the age of 40 have pursued. The researchers were also interested in differences between men and women.

For their study, which appeared in the Journal of Gerontology, they used two large data sets from a register for Swedish twins: firstly, the scientists evaluated a study on cognitive health, and secondly, a survey from 1967, which also dealt with the twins’ leisure behavior. Among other things, the twins were asked what their most important leisure activities were in their first 40 years of life.

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These activities were divided into eleven groups. These included, for example, house and garden, reading, sports, and cultural activities. In later years (when they were on average 83 years old), the twins were cognitively tested several times.

When the Swedish researchers evaluated these data, they found that men and women had on average the same activity levels, but in very different areas. For example, women spent more of their leisure time at home, while men were particularly noticeable in the areas of further education and self-improvement (club activities and organizations, studies, sports, or outdoor activities).

However, the influence of their leisure behavior on their cognitive tests in old age also differed. For men, the only significant effect on verbal skills and speed was a greater commitment to training and self-improvement. Women, on the other hand, performed better in verbal ability and memory in intellectual, cultural activities. If, on the other hand, the women spent most of their time at home, their memory suffered later and their abilities for spatial adjustment also declined particularly quickly.

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The researchers were surprised that self-improvement and further training did not have the same effect for women as for men. They assume, however, that the result was due to a statistical weakness: Since at that time only very few women spent their free time with club activities, sports, studies or outdoor activities, no effect could be proven.

However, before giving too much weight to the individual results of the study, the authors point out that the activity reports date from the last century and do not necessarily reflect the men and women of today. Overall, however, the results suggest that not all leisure activities have an impact on mental decline. There also seem to be differences between men and women in this area that scientists should consider in future studies.

This is part 35 of a series covering twin health provided by Paul Enck from the Tübingen University Hospital and science writer Nicole Simon. Further studies in twin research can be found at the TwinHealth website. Translation was done with the assistance of DeepL translator.

References:

  1. Livingston G, Sommerlad A, Orgeta V, Costafreda SG, Huntley J, Ames D, et al. Dementia prevention, intervention, and care. Lancet. 2017;390(10113):2673-2734.
  2. Hassing LB. Gender Differences in the Association Between Leisure Activity in Adulthood and Cognitive Function in Old Age: A Prospective Longitudinal Population-Based Study. J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2017, Sep 4. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbx170. [Epub ahead of print]

About The Author

Paul Enck is Professor of Medical Psychology and Head of Research at the Department of Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy, University Hospital Tübingen, Germany. His research focus is psychophysiology and neurogastroenterology (i.e. stress research, pain research, biofeedback applications, cortical imaging, eating disorders, functional gastrointestinal disorders and placebo research).

Nicole Simon, who studied biomedical science, has been writing for more than ten years as an independent science and medical journalist for various print and online media.