Research supports the common-sense notion that intellectual and physical activity are associated with mental well-being as we age. It is unclear, however, to what extent there is a causal relationship between activity and cognitive health. Do physical activity and intellectual activity actually improve our cognitive well-being, or are we more likely to engage in stimulating leisure activities if we are cognitively healthy? Do physical and intellectual stimulation have the same importance for our cognitive well-being? A longitudinal study of 1,463 older adults in China suggests that engaging in leisure activities does have a protective role against cognitive decline, and that different types of activity may affect distinct cognitive functions.
The study, which followed the subjects for an average of 2.4 years each, included various assessments of cognitive function, as well as assessments of mental and physical leisure activity and health status. Participants also provided information on various demographic factors, and gave blood samples which were assessed for the Apolipoprotein E (APOE) genotype, a form of which is associated with Alzheimer’s Disease.
In their analysis of the data, the authors found that, when controlling for demographic factors and the presence of the APOE genotype, high levels of physical activity were associated with improved maintenance of episodic memory and language skills, while mental activity was associated with lower decline in overall cognition, language skills, and executive function. Social activity also appeared to have a protective effect on overall cognition. The findings were the same in men and women. These findings support the hypothesis that physical, intellectual, and social activities are all important aspects of healthy aging.