issues and experts

Keeping active through varied activities can reduce risk of developing dementia

December 16, 2021

New research reminds us how important it is to call, visit and write to the older adults in our lives this holiday season and into the new year. Researchers from Simon Fraser University found that older adults who continue to engage in a variety of activities, including connecting with family and friends, reduced their risk of developing dementia. 

Their findings, published in the journal Aging, show that the effects of engaging in a combination of activities increased with age and was more impactful than historical factors such as education level or baseline memory.

The study examined data from the National Institute on Aging’s Health and Retirement Study and included 3,210 participants aged 65 to 89. Study participants were asked how often they engaged in 33 activities from ‘never’ to ‘at least once a month’ to ‘several times a month’ up to ‘daily’. 

Researchers created a machine learning model to analyze the activities’ impact on memory. The activities ranged from hobbies such as baking or cooking, reading, playing cards and games to walking for 20 minutes, or socializing with family and friends through letters, email, phone calls or in-person visits. 

“Our study results show that cognitive decline can be reduced through a combination of active, daily activities -- things like using a computer and playing word games,” says study co-author Sylvain Moreno, an associate professor at SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT) and CEO/scientific director of the Digital Health Circle, based at SFU.

“Scientists believed that genetics were the main factor influencing cognitive health but our findings show the reverse. With age, your choice of daily activities is more important than your genetics or your current cognitive skills,” Moreno adds.

The researchers suggest their study results could have a significant impact on aging health policies, including promoting new social prescribing programs to help older adults keep mentally active into their senior years. 

Social prescribing involves connecting older adults to a range of activities in the community such as gardening, art classes or volunteering. 

Older adults are more at risk of developing dementia and other neurodegenerative disorders for which there is no cure, which is why prevention is so important.

“Today, around 55 million people have dementia and this number will almost triple by 2050 with an aging population,” says Moreno. “Care for patients with dementia is challenging, labour-intensive, and chronic, which generates high costs for health systems.”

Their research demonstrates that strategies for prevention are effective and a social prescribing approach to healthcare can help people maintain healthy cognitive function as they age. 


SYLVAIN MORENO, associate professor, School of Interactive Arts and Technology & CEO/scientific director, Digital Health Circle            

GREG CHRISTIE, chief technology officer, Digital Health Circle & associate director, Digital Health Hub


MELISSA SHAW, SFU  Communications & Marketing 
236.880.3297 |

Simon Fraser University
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