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How hobbies can help protect against dementia

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For many, the word “hobby” means something light or trivial. Yet taking up a new hobby as you age could provide an important defense against dementia, some experts say.

About 5.8 million adults over the age of 65 in the United States live with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia disorders, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One in 9 Americans over 65 has Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. And although the dementia rate may be falling thanks to lifestyle changes, more of us are living longer, which means that the social burden of dementia is increasing.

David Merrill, an adult and geriatric psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Brain Health Center in Santa Monica, California, suggests we use the word “pursuit” instead of “hobby” because it elevates the concept of an activity to something something demanding, something requiring concentration or collaboration. Something we should hunt.

Activities that require focus and industry are the blueprint for keeping cognition sharp, Merrill says. Our brain, he continues, is like any other part of our body. “’Use it or lose it‘ is not just a hypothesis, it is a basic biological fact that is as true for our brains as our muscles or our bones.’

Although there is not yet a surefire way to prevent dementia or cure it, the Lancet identified in 2020 12 potentially modifiable risk factors for the disease; They include physiological depression (blood pressure, diabetes, hearing loss), lifestyle choices (smoking, alcohol, physical activity), environmental depression (air pollution), social isolation, and a level of lower education. The Alzheimer Society of Canada is also clear about what we can do to help minimize our risk of dementiaStay cognitively engaged, learn new things, meet new people, journal, stay curious, and start conversations.

A potential link between dementia and air pollution

While muscle loss is a visual thing – taut thighs become flabby, flat bellies flabby – and the health of our skeletons can be measured using bone density scans, Merrill says, “it’s only recently that we became aware of the same reality was evident.” in our brain. Amyotrophy applies to sedentary muscles in the same way that it applies to the cognitive decline seen in dementia.

Brain imaging illustrates this point: learning and engagement contribute to building not only a psychological lift, but also a physiological lift in the preservation of brain volumes and the prevention of atrophy – or shrinking – memory centers, the same way physical exercise keeps our muscles visible. in a well-defined form, adds Merrill.

The Alzheimer’s Association says that we need to “stunning” ourselves by challenging our brains, doing something that we find difficult. Think of it as cognitive weightlifting, a task that requires mental flexibility and toughness. And that often means doing something we’re not used to doing: something new.

We naturally do this in our youth, but when we hit our 40s we tend to slow down and be less social, less active, less inclined to mentally stretch.

In her book “Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live,” Becca Levy, professor of psychology and epidemiology at Yale University, argues that individuals – and society – accelerate aging by reinforcing stereotypes about “senior moments”. First among these images: “the fake age stereotype that the harder I find it to learn new information.”

She writes: “The fact is that there are many positive cognitive changes in older people and there are many techniques to support lifelong learning. Older people can benefit from the same memory strategies that young people use to improve their memory. In fact, our brain experiences new neural growth in response to challenges throughout life.

The problem is that thinking you’re old — or accepting the ageism society trusts you — becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, so you’re less likely to try new things. So not only do you fail to exercise your brain, but you also develop a habit of giving up.

Is my memory okay or is it just normal aging?

According to Gallup, the average retirement age in the United States is 61 in 2022. The Pew Research Center reports that just over half of Americans over 55 had retired by the third quarter of 2021 – a statistic exacerbated by the pandemic and which will rise as a generation of baby boomers rush towards retirement age. The average life expectancy is 76.1 year.

But while aging is – hopefully – obvious, dementia is not, says Monica Moreno, senior director of care and support at the Alzheimer’s Association.

Research indicates that mentally stimulating activities can have short- and long-term benefits for the brain, she says. And a hobby—something new that we introduce into our lives as job demands diminish—is a great way to challenge ourselves and possibly spark a cascade of positive change.

“Imagine that when you retire, you decide to take dance lessons,” Moreno says. Ultimately, “you don’t just benefit from the cognitive challenge – learning new steps – you’re also likely to be more socially engaged and active. And because you’re more active, you may be thinking about your diet, so before realizing this, you have made a number of significant lifestyle changes.

She directs me to the Alzheimer’s Association education program, “Healthy living for your brain and body: tips from the latest research.”

Sylvain Moreno, an associate professor at the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia (no relation to Monica Moreno), agrees that staying mentally agile is important, so important that it might carry more weight for protect you from dementia than your genetics or your current cognitive abilities.

How about learning something in retirement? “You’re never too old to improve cognitive function,” he says.

And when you think about retirement, also think about staying engaged as you age. “Having a plan is critically important,” says Monica Moreno. Ask yourself, “How am I going to stay busy, stay engaged, stay active? »

Adopting a new hobby is a great first step.

“Based on the extensive scientific literature, our general feeling is that it’s never too early or too late to engage in physically and mentally stimulating activities,” says Judy Pa, co-director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study at the University of California at San Diego.

“We think of these healthy activities as a savings account for the brain,” Pa says. “Start building that cognitive reserve now, so the money is in the bank for later if our brain needs it.”