Variety of Interests Can Help Older Adults Avoid Dementia

Involvement in a variety of activities has been shown to reduce the risk of developing dementia in older adults.  For years, health care providers knew that staying active with hobbies and social activities helped to keep the brain functioning well for years.  New research delves in further to report that it's the diversity, not intensity of the activity that counts.

Local psychiatrist Ehtesham Syed, MD, psychiatrist with the Institute for Neuropsychiatry and Medical Director of Elder Care of Lake Charles Memorial Hospital, explained that intense focus on one particular hobby may not be as beneficial as being able to juggle several interests.  "The pastimes can range from gardening to woodworking. It's not the energy spent, it's having a variety of interests that help to keep the brain active" in older adults.

He said the benefit comes from being able to relate to a wide variety of interests, the ability to communicate thoughts pertaining to those interests, and being able to complete the tasks associated with the activity. "Participating in many hobbies or activities requires the brain to go through many tasks associated with cognitive/thought processes, bringing the thought to reality by going through the physical steps necessary to complete the activity, and relating to others on a social level about the activity.  This process repeats for every activity and keeps the brain working," Syed said.  "Instead of staying in the same strict ritual day in and day out, it's more work for the brain to have a varied schedule.  Working the brain helps keep it functioning properly."

Researchers with Johns Hopkins University studied 3,375 men and women over age 65 from 1992 to 2000, surveying them on the kinds of activities they were involved with.  Those doing the widest variety were less likely to develop dementia.

The link between a variety of activities and the lower rate of dementia is not clear, but Dr. Syed said it is likely due to the fact that a wide range of interests keeps more parts of the brain active.  "And, being involved in a variety of hobbies causes more social interaction, which is a strong benefit for older people.  Staying in touch with friends and family provides an important connection for overall well-being," said Syed.

The study showed the fifteen most common physical activities for older adults were: walking, household chores, mowing, raking, gardening, hiking, jogging, biking, exercise cycling, dancing, aerobics, bowling, golfing, general exercise and swimming.

Dementia encompasses a group of diseases, including Alzheimer's disease, which gradually destroys brain cells and lower mental function.  An estimated 4.5 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease, a number that has doubled since 1980 and is expected to reach as much as 16 million by 2005.