By Tara Haelle
WEDNESDAY, April 8, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Adults who pursue artistic, craft and social activities may stay mentally sharp longer, a new study suggests.
Researchers found that older adults involved in these activities or those who used a computer later in life were about half as likely to experience mild dementia over the next four years.
"Engaging in cognitively stimulating activities has beneficial long-term effects on cognitive [thinking] function," said study author Rosebud Roberts, chair of the division of epidemiology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
The study could not show that these activities actually prevented declines in thinking, but it found the risk was lower among those participating in them. The findings were published in the April 8 online edition of the journal Neurology.
The researchers tracked 256 adults, aged 85 and older, over four years. Nearly half developed mild dementia during that time.
Aside from differences in sex and education, those who took part in artistic pursuits throughout midlife and late life were 73 percent less likely to experience mild dementia.
Similarly, those involved in crafts and social activities both in midlife and later life were about half as likely to experience mild dementia. So were those who used computers in later life, the investigators found.
It's possible that sharper adults are more likely to seek out these activities in the first place, but the findings still suggest the participation contributes to brain health, Roberts said.
"We found that if you were engaged in these activities in midlife, regardless of late life, or in both midlife and late life, your risk of cognitive [thinking] decline was reduced," she said. "In the few people who only began these activities in late life, there was also a benefit, but this was not statistically different from those who never participated in these activities."
Dr. Anton Porsteinsson, director of Alzheimer's Disease Care at the University of Rochester School of Medicine in New York, said the findings fit with past research showing that artistic and social activities appear to help protect against mental decline.
"It's hard to say what's the chicken and what's the egg, but there's emerging data that some kinds of creative, artistic activity may stimulate certain parts of your brain that are more vulnerable to damage through the aging process," he said.
The researchers also found risk factors linked to a higher risk of mental decline.
Those with depressive symptoms were almost twice as likely to develop mild cognitive impairment as those without symptoms. These symptoms may be part of the degenerative processes of the brain or a response to a person's awareness that their memory is failing, Roberts said, but the reason for the association between depression and dementia isn't clear.
Further, those who developed high blood pressure (hypertension) in midlife were more than twice as likely to develop thinking problems, the study found. Having vascular diseases increased risk of mild dementia 13 percent, and having other chronic conditions increased the risk by 8 percent.
However, the study could only show an association between these risk factors and dementia, not a cause-and-effect.
"Hypertension and vascular diseases can have an effect on small blood vessels that supply the brain tissue, gradually reducing the transport of oxygen and fuel to those brain cells, and eventually resulting in death of larger and larger portions of the brain," said Dr. Vernon Williams, a neurologist and director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles.
Past research has found that other factors that may protect against mental decline include exercise, a healthy diet and engagement in group activities such as book clubs, Bible studies and organized discussion groups, Roberts said. Participants in the new study who exercised three to four times a week had lower risks of thinking impairment, but those results were not statistically significant, she added.
Williams said the study highlights important strategies for potentially improving neurologic health and function throughout life. The currently aging population is already at risk for mental decline, needing assistance and reduced quality of life, he added.
"We should look at this as another example of the importance of promoting neurologic health across the life span," Williams said. "It's not all doom and gloom. Optimistic and positive outcomes can be used to encourage and promote positive behavioral changes at every stage of life."