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Study identifies link between certain lifestyle activities and reduced cognitive decline

October 07, 2021
Older adults practicing yoga.

A new study by researchers from the Digital Health Circle (DHC), an innovation hub affiliated with Simon Fraser University (SFU), has determined there is a causal relationship between participating in certain lifestyle activities and preventing a decline in cognitive health. Protecting cognitive health is key for healthy aging and for deterring illnesses such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

The study, led by DHC Director Sylvain Moreno, shows that moderate-intensity physical activity, such as gardening or walking, and learning activities such as music and art classes—lower the risk of cognitive decline.

Over three years, Moreno led a team of researchers, including lead author Ali Arab—an SFU graduate student in computing science and the Computational Health Research Lab, as they tracked the brain health of more than 4,000 older adults. They used a machine-learning algorithm and the English Longitudinal Study of Aging database to study the benefits of certain lifestyle factors while also controlling for confounding effects which, in the past, have prevented researchers from making more definitive causal connections. 

“The global population of older adults is growing, and the finding that lifestyle activities can help prevent cognitive health decline in seniors could lead to new clinical practices and better health outcomes for Canadians and beyond,” says Moreno, a professor in SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology, and a computational neuroscientist.

Jen Lyle, CEO of the Alzheimer Society of B.C., applauds the research team, saying that “advancing our knowledge about how we might reduce our risk of developing dementia helps all of us to start now, to do what we can to support our cognitive health.”

The study is encouraging for advocates of ‘social prescribing,’ the medical practice of prescribing lifestyle activities (such as those noted in the study) for patients to undertake along with, or instead of, medical or other interventions.

Social prescribing is already championed as a form of alternative treatment by the National Institute of Health (NIH) in the U.K. It recognizes that people’s health is determined primarily by a range of social, economic and environmental factors, and seeks to address people’s needs in a holistic way. 

Social prescribing is in its infancy in North America, with only a few pilot-test sites across the continent. The study’s findings open up the potential of developing evidence-based social prescribing practices in the North American context and provide further justification for their use in the U.K.

“This study shows that even mild to moderate activity, such as gardening and walking, and learning such as music and art, can improve cognitive function in our seniors,” says Dr. Grace Park, regional medical director, Fraser Health. “Social prescribing can help seniors to engage in these activities by addressing barriers and setting achievable goals for the seniors.”

“As Dr. Park described, the research shows that social prescribing can have a positive impact on an older adult’s wellbeing when included as part of their overall health and wellness plan,” said Kahir Lalji, executive director, United Way British Columbia.

“Taking a distinctly holistic approach, social prescribing acts as a pathway for older adult patients from their doctor’s office to a local social prescribing program which connects the patient to a community program, such as a nutrition or food security program or a health or fitness program.

“What we have discovered is that older adults who would not normally seek such services are led to a local community program that has shown to improve their quality of life—helping them thrive and remain connected and independent for as long as possible. At Healthy Aging, we aim to grow this practice across British Columbia and currently we have 19 community agencies delivering the program throughout the province.”

The study builds on professor Moreno’s expertise in neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to change and adapt itself over the lifespan—as well as SFU computing science professor Martin Ester’s expertise in creating machine learning systems to analyze health data.