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By Alexandra Sifferlin
April 8, 2015
TIME Health
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Just as coloring books for adults are starting to fly off the shelves, a new study suggests that older adults who do creative activities like arts and crafts could delay the development of memory problems in old age.

The study, which is published in the journal Neurology, looked at 256 people who were between 85 to 89 years old and did not have any memory related problems at the start of the study. The men and women were followed for four years. The people in the study reported their levels of engagement in the arts, including painting, drawing, sculpting, woodworking, ceramics, quilting and sewing. They also estimated their social life—hanging out with friends, traveling, and attending book clubs and Bible studies—as well as their computer use, which included searching the Internet and buying things online.

People who exercised their artistic muscle were 73% less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment, a condition that can mean memory problems and reduced mental function, than those who didn’t partake in artistic activities. People who did a lot of crafts like woodworking and quilting were 45% less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment than people who did not, and computer users were 53% less likely to develop it compared to adults who didn’t use the computer. Social adults were 55% less likely to have memory problems later on than their antisocial peers.

The researchers also found that other risk factors, like having high blood pressure and depression in middle age, also increased the risk of mild cognitive impairment later in life.

Education may increase the mind’s resilience, which can keep memory loss symptoms at bay, the researchers say. “The reduced risk with computer use and with artistic or crafts activities suggest that these activities should be promoted throughout life,” the authors write. “These activities may also increase cognitive reserve, maintain neuronal function, stimulate neural growth, and recruit alternate neural pathways to maintain cognitive function.”

Kids are encouraged to express their creativity, but arts and crafts may stimulate the minds of adults, too. “There have been a number of studies both in older and somewhat younger individuals suggesting that physical but also mental activity may help prevent development of dementia,” says Dr. James Leverenz, director of the Cleveland Center for Brain Health at the Cleveland Clinic. (Leverenz was not involved in the research.) “We know [mental activity] doesn’t harm anyone, so I encourage it,” he says. “Sometimes that’s just getting out and being social and not sitting around the house all day.”

According to Leverenz, some science suggests that having the brain being stimulated both socially and physically increases growth factors that are important for brain health. At the same time, Leverenz says that the group of adults analyzed in the study was fairly unique since they had no memory problems at their old age. It also should be noted that cause and effect could not be determined in the study. “One of the earliest symptoms of the disease is a loss of interest in activities,” says Leverenz. “It might be that it’s not the loss of activities that cause them to transition, but actually it’s the very early stages of the disease that cause them to be less active.”

While further research is needed, this new study is your best excuse to dig out that artwork—or finger paints—you only thought you grew out of.

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