Your daily walk, cleaning the house and lunch with friends could together be keys to staving off dementia, according to researchers.
A new study looked at lifestyle habits that could help lower risks, instead of factors that may contribute to the disease.
Researchers in China combed the data of more than a half-million British people in the UK Biobank and found that household chores, social visits and exercise were all associated with reduced risks for multiple forms of dementia.
The study, led by Dr. Huan Song of Sichuan University in Chengdu, China, followed the participants for an average 11 years. By the end of the follow-up, 5,185 participants had developed dementia.
"We can't just look at this study and say, 'if you exercise, you're going to reduce your risk of Alzheimer's' -- that is not a conclusion we can come to, but this is one more piece of the evidence that suggests that exercise is really, really good for your brain," said Dr. Allison Reiss, an associate professor at NYU Long Island School of Medicine who serves on an Alzheimer's Foundation of America advisory board.
Reiss said the study was well done and exceptional because of its size, though it was also subjective because it was based on questionnaires filled out by participants. They answered questions about their physical activities, including frequency of climbing stairs, participation in strenuous sports and transportation use.
The participants also provided information about their household chores, job-related activities and use of electronic devices, as well as how often they visited with friends and family or went to pubs, social clubs or religious groups. They also reported family history of dementia, which helped researchers gauge genetic risk for Alzheimer's.
Whether or not they had a family history of dementia, all participants benefited from the protective effect of physical and mental activities, the researchers found.
Specifically, risk dropped 35% among frequent exercisers; by 21% among those who did household chores, and by 15% among those who had daily visits with family and friends, compared to those who were least engaged in these activities.
Chores could be helpful because they're a form of exercise, Reiss said. People who are cleaning, cooking and gardening may also be living a more active lifestyle.
"I really do think being physically active as you get older is just a very good thing," she said. "Don't drop out of life and sit on the couch. Get out and do stuff with people. And if it's physical activity, it's great. And mental activity is good. Keep living life.”
Dr. Zaldy Tan, medical director for the Jona Goldrich Center for Alzheimer's and Memory Disorders at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, also reviewed the findings.
He said consistency may be a benefit of household chores. They're so intertwined with day-to-day activities, unlike exercise, which people may give up for a time, he pointed out.
“And, of course, the goal here is to supplement that with other activities that are not only physically demanding, but also increase our mental simulation and flex our social muscles," Tan said. "That's the other interesting aspect of this study is that it's not just physical activity, but also mental and social activities."
Sometimes people end up isolated as they enter retirement if all their social interactions are tied to their work, he said. Social isolation is a risk factor for dementia.
"What people can take away from this is that no matter what age, no matter what our life situation, we have to find a way to stay physically active, mentally active, socially engaged as part of the overall approach to keeping our minds and our brains healthy from middle age to old age," Tan said. He added that other studies have also shown that regular physical, mental and social activity benefits brain health.
Researchers noted that this study can't be generalized to a diverse group, because most of the participants were white folks in the United Kingdom and because activity levels were self-reported.
Percy Griffin, director of scientific engagement for the Alzheimer's Association, said the findings are exciting and warrant additional investigation.
"This type of research is already happening through the Alzheimer's Association's U.S. POINTER study, a two-year clinical trial that aims to uncover the best lifestyle 'recipe' for reducing risk of cognitive decline and dementia," Griffin said in a written statement. "We are confident that the combined efforts of researchers around the globe will one day shed light on the possibility of preventing dementia altogether."
The findings were published online July 27 in the journal Neurology.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has more on Alzheimer's disease and related dementias.
SOURCES: Allison Reiss, MD, member, Medical, Scientific and Memory Screening Advisory Board, Alzheimer's Foundation of America, associate professor, medicine, NYU Long Island School of Medicine, Mineola, N.Y., and head, NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island Inflammation Laboratory, Biomedical Research Institute, Mineola, N.Y.; Zaldy Tan, MD, MPH, medical director, Jona Goldrich Center for Alzheimer's and Memory Disorders, and director, Bernard and Maxine Platzer Lynn Family Memory and Healthy Aging Program, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles; Percy Griffin, PhD, director, scientific engagement, Alzheimer's Association, Chicago; Neurology, July 27, 2022