Activities for brain health: It is the variety which counts

According to a recent study, people who engage in a variety of activities would probably have better cognitive skills than those who do not. The findings warrant further investigation, though the study has limitations.

Participating in a range of activities may protect our cognitive abilities as we get older.
Participating in a range of activities may protect our cognitive abilities as we get older.

Although the cognitive decline is not imminent, it is often associated with advancing age. When people lead longer and longer lives in the Western world, learning how to sustain and nurture the role of the brain becomes ever more important.

Studies have shown over the years that physical as well as cognitive activity associate with enhanced cognitive performance.

Evidence on the other side of the coin has shown that people who spend long periods doing more passive things, such as watching television, are more likely to experience a steeper cognitive decline.

The effects of exercise, recreational and social activity on cognitive ability and deterioration have been studied by many scientists. A recent research review by the University of South Florida in Tampa, however, takes a slightly different approach. Our studies are published in the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences.

The importance of variety

Rather than simply calculating the overall activity level, the writers of the latest study are curious whether variety plays a role in keeping the mind sharp.

The authors suggest that”[ e]experiencing and learning from a variety of daily life activities is presented to improve cognitive reserve capacity and resilience, leading to better success on cognitively challenging tasks.”

Also, engaging in a variety of activities also means that people encounter more people. The authors suggest that social activity promotes, in itself, “the social network, information, and psychological and cognitive capital of one.”

The researchers have taken data from 732 people aged between 34 and 84 years for the current study. They asked those individuals every day for eight consecutive days whether they had engaged in any of the following seven common activities:

  • spending time with children
  • paid work
  • leisure activities
  • chores
  • formal volunteering
  • physical activity
  • giving informal help to people who do not live with them

Using this experience, the authors gave each participant a score for diversity of activities that captured both variety and activity consistency.

After 10 years the scientists asked the same questions to the same group of individuals. At the start and end of the study, the researchers tested the cognitive function of each participant with Telephone Battery’s Brief Assessment of Adult Cognition.

This test measures a variety of cognitive skills including verbal fluency, working and verbal memory, speed and attention control.

Variety, not duration

The authors found that those with the greatest variety of behavior had the highest scores for cognitive function. The effect was still significant even after adjusting for the overall amount of time an individual was spending on activities.

In other words, it’s not that someone with a range of activities spends being involved for longer. Rather, it would seem that it is the diversity itself that makes the difference.

In fact, even after adjusting for age, gender, race, educational level and self-reported physical health and wellbeing, the association remained significant.

The scientists also found that individuals who increased their diversity of behavior most during the time of study had higher cognitive scores than those who retained low levels of diversity or whose diversity level decreased.

Interestingly, this association between various activities and better cognitive performance across all age groups was identified by the researchers.

“Results support the adage to ‘use it or lose it’ and may inform future interventions targeting the promotion of active lifestyles to include a wide variety of activities for their participants.”

– Author Soomi Lee, Ph.D.

Limitations and the future

The authors note that review has some limitations. For example, the participants who completed the follow-up to the study were on average healthier and more educated than the average person in the USA. Attendees were mostly mostly male.

Further work is required to determine the relevance of the measured impact to different demographics.

Importantly, because the study is retrospective, the cause and effect can’t be confirmed; other factors may have affected the results. For example, the authors wonder if individuals who engage in the broadest range of activities might also have the healthiest diet. If that is the case, improved nutrition could help boost cognition.

While investigators asked about the health of the participants, they did not access their medical records. Since certain health conditions can reduce the ability of an person to perform activities, as well as affect cognitive performance, this has the potential to skew the results.

The authors hope some of the above concerns could be discussed in future studies.

Ultimately, however, Lee concludes that their results “suggest that active and engaged lifestyles are important for our cognitive health with varied and daily activities.”

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