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By Alexandra Sifferlin
May 30, 2018

Playing board games and reading books may be casual pastimes, but new research suggests that activities like these can have a real impact on a person’s risk for developing dementia in old age.

The new study, published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, looked at more than 15,500 people ages 65 and older who were living in Hong Kong and were tracked for about five years. The men and women didn’t have dementia at the start of the study, though more than 1,300 people developed it by the end.

At the beginning of the trial and again during follow-up interviews, the men and women were asked about any “intellectual activities” they had done within the last month, including reading books, newspapers, or magazines, playing board games or card games, and even betting on horse racing. Their overall health was also assessed during these meetings.

The researchers found that the risk of developing dementia was significantly lower among people who reported doing daily intellectual activities, compared to people who did them less often or not at all. This lower risk appeared to be independent of other known interventions, like eating healthy and getting regular exercise.

“Given the growing older population worldwide, promoting regular engagement in intellectual activities might help delay or prevent dementia,” the study authors write.

The study didn’t show that activities like reading and playing games definitely cause a person to avoid developing dementia. In an editorial response to the study, two Harvard-affiliated experts, Dr. Deborah Blacker and Jennifer Weuve, note the potential for reverse causation: that participating less in intellectual activities could actually be due to dementia. Still, the researchers, Blacker and Weuve argue that the new study is supported by past research making similar connections. Engaging in mentally challenging activities—even later in life—appears to have a benefit.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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