Physical Activity and Diversity Are the Most Important for Brain Health

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According to a recent study, the individuals who participate in a variety of activities are more likely to have better cognitive abilities than those who don’t. Even though the research has a limitation, the findings call for further investigation.

In spite of the fact that it is not inevitable, cognitive decline is most of the time associated with advancing age. As adults in the Western world live increasingly long lives, it became more important for them to understand how to preserve and support the brain’s function.

Over the years, many studies have discovered that both physical and cognitive activity is correlated with improved cognitive performance. On the other hand, researchers have shown that individuals who spend long periods doing more passive activities, like watching television, are more likely to experience a cognitive decline with advancing age.

Also, many scientists have studied the effects of physical, leisure, and social activity on cognitive ability. A recent study made by the researchers at the University of South Florida in Tampa takes a different approach this time. Their findings were published in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences.


The importance of variety

More important than the overall level of activity, the researchers wanted to find out whether variety plays a role in keeping one’s mind sharp.

The authors of the study explain that “experiencing and learning from a variety of activities in daily life are posited to increase cognitive reserve capacity and resilience, leading to better performance on cognitively challenging tasks.”

By taking part in a range of activities, leads to the individuals meeting more people. The scientists think that social activity, in itself, promotes “one’s social network, knowledge, and psychological and cognitive resources.”

For this particular study, the researchers used data from 732 people between the ages of 34 and 84. For 8 consecutive days, the participants to the study were asked whether they had taken part in any of the following seven common activities:

  • spending time with children
  • paid work
  • leisure activities
  • chores
  • formal volunteering
  • physical activity
  • giving informal help to people who do not live with them

Based on this information, the authors gave each participant to the study a score for activity diversity that included both the variety and consistency of activity.

After 10 years, the same group of individuals was asked the exact same questions by the scientist. At the start and end of the study, the researchers evaluate each participant’s cognitive function using the Brief Test of Adult Cognition by Telephone battery.

This test includes a range of cognitive abilities, including verbal fluency, working, and verbal memory, processing speed, and attention.


Variety, not duration

The scientist discovered that the participants who had the greatest activity diversity had the highest cognitive function results. Even after adjusting for the overall amount of time an individual spent on activities, the effect was still notable.

Otherwise speaking, it’s not the time that someone spends with diverse activities that matter, but the diversity itself that makes a big difference. In addition, the connection remained significant even after adjusting for age, gender, race, level of education, and self-reported physical health and well-being.

Moreover, the scientist also discovered that individuals who increased their activity diversity the most during the period the study was made, developed better cognitive scores than the participants who maintained low levels of diversity or whose diversity levels have decreased.

The good news is that the association between diverse activities and better cognitive performance was identified in all age groups.

“Results support the adage to ‘use it or lose it’ and may inform future interventions targeting the promotion of active lifestyles to include a wide variety of activities for their participants.” – Author Soomi Lee, Ph.D.


Limitations and the future

However, the researchers encountered some certain limitations of their study. For example, the participants who completed the study follow-up were healthier and more educated that the average person in the United States. Also, the participants of the study were predominantly white people. In addition, more research is needed to determine if the measured effect is relevant for different demographics.

More important, due to the fact that the study is observational, it is not possible to confirm cause and effect, because other variables may have influenced the results. For example, the scientists reflect on whether individuals that had the widest range of activities also had the healthiest diet. If they did, better nutrition and a healthy lifestyle could be helping to boost cognition.

Even though the researchers asked questions about the participants’ health, they didn’t use each’s participants’ medical records. They hope that there will be more future studies that will address some of the same issues.

In conclusion, their findings “suggest that active and engaged lifestyles with diverse and regular activities are essential for our cognitive health.”

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