Contrary to some previous research, new findings question whether leisure activities in middle age really do help mitigate subsequent dementia risk.
The study showed no association between taking part in more leisure activities at age 56 and the risk of dementia over the next 18 years. There was some benefit when leisure activity participation was assessed later in life.
“Of course there are many reasons to participate in leisure activities and this finding does not question the importance of keeping active for general health and well-being, but it does suggest that simply increasing leisure activity may not be a strategy for preventing dementia,” study investigator Andrew Sommerlad, PhD, from University College London, United Kingdom, said in a news release.
The study also showed that some people who were later diagnosed with dementia stopped participating in leisure activities years before they were diagnosed, suggesting that changes in the amount of leisure activity may be an early sign of dementia.
“Dementia appeared to be the cause, rather than consequence, of low levels of leisure activities,” Sommerlad told Medscape Medical News.
The study was published online October 28 in the journal Neurology.
The study included 8280 adults (mean age, 56 years) who were followed for an average of 18 years as part of the Whitehall II study. Participants reported their leisure activities at the beginning of the study, 5 years later, and again 10 years later.
They were placed in low, medium, and high groups based on their levels of participation in leisure activities such as reading, listening to music, taking classes, participating in clubs, visiting friends/ relatives, playing cards or games, taking part in religious activities, and gardening.
During the study, 360 people developed dementia at a mean age of 76.2 years. The overall dementia incidence rate was 2.4 cases for 1000 person-years.
In fully adjusted Cox regression analyses, taking part in more leisure activities at an average age of 56 was not associated with a lower risk of dementia 18 years later (hazard ratio [HR] 0.92, 95% CI, 0.79 – 1.06).
However, those with higher participation in leisure activities later in life, at a mean age of 66, were less likely to develop dementia over the next 8 years than those with lower participation (HR, 0.82; 95% CI, 0.69 – 0.98).
In addition, a decline in leisure activity during the study was associated with an increased risk of dementia (HR, 1.38; 95% CI, 1.20 – 1.59).
Of the 1159 people whose activity decreased during the study, 53 (5%) developed dementia, compared with 17 (2%) of 820 people who maintained their leisure activity level.
“More research is needed to confirm these results, but we know that early changes in the brain can start decades before any symptoms emerge,” Sommerlad said in the news release.
“It’s plausible that people may slow down their activity level up to 10 years before dementia is actually diagnosed, due to subtle changes and symptoms that are not yet recognized,” he added.
“There is no