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Could a new hobby help stave off dementia?

Shutterstock / Volt Collection

It’s time to dust off that puzzle, finish that quilt, or join a book club, according to neurologists. New research suggests that artistic and social activities done from midlife on will protect your brain from memory and thinking problems even in very old age.

“The old expression was, ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away.’ Well, now, maybe it should be painting an apple, or going to the store with a friend to buy an apple,” says James Galvin, a neurologist at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, who was not involved in the study.

As part of a long-term study of aging, researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota compiled 11 years of survey and health data from 256 individuals, aged 85 and older. “That’s the largest growing population of people in the United States, and we wanted to see what’s happening with those people,” says Rosebud Roberts, lead researcher on the study, published this month in the journal Neurology.

Previous studies support the idea that certain lifestyle factors can reduce the risk of dementia, but this is one of the first to focus on the oldest seniors and to assess the impact of midlife activities on their later mental health.

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The participants were questioned about their habits in middle and late life — before and after the age of 65 — and were subject to complete neuropsychological evaluations every 15 to 18 months.

Roberts and her team found that those who engaged in artistic activities, such as painting, drawing, and sculpting in both middle and late life were a whopping 73 percent less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment — the onset of declining mental function that may progress to dementia — in their late 80s than those who did not.

And arts weren’t the only activity that appeared to protect the brain: Crafting in middle and late life reduced risk of brain dysfunction by 45 percent, socialization dropped it by 55 percent, and computer use lowered risk by 53 percent.

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“The strongest effect was for people who were performing these activities in both midlife and late life,” says Roberts. That’s not to say one needs to take up sketching, ceramics, and a gardening group all at once, she adds, but it’s a good idea to regularly find new activities that one enjoys.

“For both the young and old, people need to realize they can make a difference in their own lives,” says Roberts. “They don’t have to wait until they need treatment for a disease.”