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Tuesday, 25 December, 2001, 01:16 GMT
Social life 'may cut Alzheimer's risk'
Spending time with friends is good for your health
Spending time with friends is good for your health
Spending Christmas with the family may send stress levels rocketing, but it could help reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

US researchers claim taking part in a lot of leisure activities, such as visiting friends or relatives can reduce a person's risk of developing the condition by as much as 38%.

Reading a book or magazine, seeing a movie or going for a walk are also activities which may help, they say.

It is suggested these habits may boost the brain by helping it keep a "reserve" capacity that can delay the onset of the disease.

The US study backs up previous research which suggested mental and physical activity may help prevent Alzheimer's disease.

Being more active and more engaged as we get older is good for our quality of life, and just possibly it may also protect us from developing dementia

Dr Richard Harvey Alzheimer's Society
It had been suggested people who achieve a high level of education and have high-flying jobs are less at risk of developing Alzheimer's.

But this study, carried out by scientists from Columbia University in New York, suggests people can benefit from keeping active, whatever their background and social status.

Activity boost

The team monitored 1,772 people over 65, who were assessed to have no signs of Alzheimer's.

They came from a range of ethnic, educational and occupational backgrounds.

Activities monitored
Knitting, music or other hobby
Visiting friends or relatives
Being visited by friends or relatives
Physical activity
Going to restaurants, movies or sporting events
Reading magazines, newspapers or books
Watching television or listening to the radio
Doing volunteer work,
Playing cards or bingo
Going to a club or centre
Going to classes
Going to church, synagogue or temple
Over seven years, researchers looked at how often they participated in 13 common leisure activities which were classed as intellectual, physical or social.

One point was awarded for each activity, and people scoring less than 6 points were defined as having low leisure activity.

Comparing those who developed dementia with those who did not showed that those people who had high leisure activities were 38% less likely to develop dementia.

It was found intellectual activity conferred the most benefits, though all three categories were beneficial.

They also assessed their physical and neurological health, and carried out tests - including memory, language and abstract reasoning - to evaluate their condition.

And each activity people participated in was linked to an additional 8% reduction in risk.

Of the 1,772 people monitored, 207 developed dementia.

Dr Yaakov Stern, who led the research, said: "Our study suggests that aspects of life experience supply a set of skills or repertoires that allow an individual to cope with progressing Alzheimer's disease pathology for a longer time before the disease becomes clinically apparent.

"Maintaining intellectual and social engagement in everyday activities seems to buffer healthy individuals against cognitive decline in later life."

'Use it or lose it'

Dr Richard Harvey, director of research at the Alzheimer's Society said the research came to an "attractive conclusion".

Walking was one of the activates monitored
Walking was one of the activities monitored
He said: "This plays to the old adage 'use it or lose it'.

"Its also a good public health message for older people, encouraging more physical activity which may also reduce the risk of other problems such heart attacks and strokes."

He added it was possible a reduced interest in leisure activities was a marker that people were in a "pre-clinical" phase of dementia.

"We know from MRI brain scanning studies that dementia starts in the brain up to 2-3 years before the first symptoms appear, and while the longest period of follow-up was 7 years, subjects were on average followed up for only 2.9 years.

"However, 'use it or lose it' is a good positive message to give out. Being more active and more engaged as we get older is good for our quality of life, and just possibly it may also protect us from developing dementia.

The research is published in Neurology, the journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

The Alzheimer's Society provides a help line in the UK on 0845 3000 336.

See also:

06 Mar 01 | Health
TV 'link' to Alzheimer's
02 Apr 99 | Health
Learning 'protects the brain'
19 Jun 01 | Health
Daffodil dementia drug hailed
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