New research suggests the leisure activities older adults engaged in before age 40 can have a very different impact on their cognitive health, depending on their gender.
In 1967, 340 Swedish older adults (including 225 women) were asked about the main leisure activities they engaged in before age 40. These activities included domestic (housework and family care), intellectual-cultural (reading, watching TV, socializing), and self-improvement (clubs, sports, studies) activities. Then, in 1991, when participants were at least 80 years of age, they completed measures of verbal ability, spatial ability, memory, and processing speed. These tests were repeated every two years for the next eight years.
As might be expected, the women had tended to engage in more domestic activities, whereas men had tended to engage in more self-improvement activities, though total amount of activity was the same for both genders.
Women who engaged in more intellectual-cultural activity had significantly better verbal ability and memory after age 80, compared to women who engaged in less intellectual-cultural activity; however, memory also tended to decline quicker. Greater engagement in domestic activity was actually related to more rapid decline in spatial ability and memory for women, but was related to slower decline in speed for men. Also for men, engaging in more self-improvement activity was related to better verbal ability, spatial ability, and speed, as well as slightly better memory.
Although activity patterns of women and men may be very different today than 70 years ago, the findings suggest that engaging in a variety of social, physical, and intellectual activities is important for older and younger adults. While self-improvement activities only appeared beneficial for men, the researchers pointed out that few women actually reported engaging in this type of activity, so there may have been too few participants to detect an effect. Intellectual activity showed a clear benefit for women, and the steeper decline in memory may only reflect that there is “more to lose.” Additionally, caring for the home and family is not necessarily bad for cognitive health, it could just mean that these women did not have time for other types of other beneficial activities.
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Hassing, LB. Gender differences in the association between leisure activity in adulthood and cognitive function in old age: A prospective longitudinal population-based study. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B (2020); 75(1): 11-20.