Your ageing brain: Use it or lose it

HAVING hobbies in middle age may help ward off dementia years later, researchers have found.

Scientists discovered activities such as reading, playing sport and socialising contribute to maintaining brainpower into old age — and may help reduce the risk of dementia.

The Cambridge University study has huge implications for the UK’s National Health Service, which faces soaring costs for caring for people with diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Brains get smaller as we age, but some people are able to maintain their memory and IQ as they get older despite this.

Experts now believe this resilience — called ‘cognitive reserve’ — is boosted by using the brain as much as possible while young.

Researcher Dr Dennis Chan, whose findings are published in the Neurobiology of Ageing journal, said: “We start with the same hardware — our brains — but the things we do can make it more robust. This is the phenomenon called cognitive reserve … There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, but the message is, what you do between the ages of 35 and 65 may affect your risk of dementia post 65.”

Previous studies have shown that those with a higher IQ, who spent longer in education, or who have more intellectually challenging occupations have a lower risk of developing dementia in later life due to these factors contributing to cognitive reserve.

The researchers set out to establish if how people spent their spare time before retirement could also boost cognitive reserve.

They measured the brain sizes of 205 people aged 66 to 88 using MRI scans and asked the volunteers to take IQ tests and complete a questionnaire about their hobbies.

Their pastimes were divided into intellectual, physical and social activities, such as reading books or spending time with family.

Researchers discovered that these midlife activities contributed to later-life IQ, independent of levels of education or occupation. They also found those with higher midlife activity scores were less dependent on brain size for maintaining their IQ.

This suggests their increased cognitive reserve was able to sustain their thinking ability despite age-related brain shrinkage.

“We’re quite excited by our findings,” Dr Chan said.

“Everyone can do this [increase their activity levels] — it doesn’t matter what you do for work or where you are.

“Activities like chatting to family or reading are free … all these activities are good for you.” There are 850,000 people with dementia in the UK, and this is set to rise to two million by 2051. Alzheimer’s Research UK predicts the disease will cost the NHS £5bn in 2020, rising to £11bn in 2050.

Dr Chan said: “This [study] has huge implications for the NHS. There’s no cost in prevention and from the NHS’s point of view free activities earlier in life could keep people out of hospital later on.”

 

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