Taking Up an Artistic Hobby May Keep Your Mind Sharp in Old Age

Keeping mentally active in old age with things like learning art or taking up a new hobby might just help you ward off cognitive problems, according to a study from the Mayo Clinic.

New Benefits for Old Artists

Pacific Standard Magazine reports that the study, which was published in the journal Neurology, looked at 256 people in their mid to late 80s. While many activities, like using computers regularly and maintaining an active social life, had cognitive benefits, artistic activities were the best way to protect against cognitive deficiencies. Beneficial activities included drawing, painting, and sculpting. Certain hobbies like woodworking, ceramics, sewing, participating in book clubs, and quilting also reaped cognitive benefits.

Many of the activities need to start during the mid-life period and continue through old age in order to provide benefits, the study found. For example, while socialization seems to reduce memory and thinking problems, that’s only true if it starts in middle age and continues through the senior years. Those who started socializing more at an older age had the same impairment levels as their less outgoing peers.

Computer use, however, follows an opposite path. Those who learned learned computer skills later in life reaped more benefits than people who did so in middle age, possibly because getting online provided a different type of brain stimulation to the seniors.

Unmistakable Effects

In the study, only 45 out of the 256 participants reported being artistic, but the benefits of their hobbies were unmistakable. The group was significantly less likely to have cognitive impairment than those who’d never indulged in artistic activities like painting, drawing, or playing music. While some had stopped the activity as seniors, those who continued their artistic pursuits had drastically lower impairment rates. Out of 18 who fell into that group, only three had some impairment.

The study’s lead author, Rosebud Roberts, is stumped as to why artistic endeavors are the standout. “These activities may all have a role in keeping brain cells stimulated, and may help develop new neural pathways,” she posited. “Or continued engagement may enable a person to develop a larger cognitive reserve from which to recruit alternate brain cells to take over function from cells which no longer function.

“Our study supports the idea that engaging the mind may protect neurons, or the building blocks of the brain, from dying, stimulate growth of new neurons, or may help recruit new neurons to maintain cognitive activities in old age.”

Numbers Don’t Lie

Over the source of the study, 121 of the 256 participants, whose average age was 87, did develop some cognitive impairment. However, those who’d been active in the arts from middle age through their later years had a 73 percent lower chance of undergoing those mental declines.

Even though the most effective option is to use arts and crafts in middle age to ward off dementia, The Mayo Clinic study shows that it’s never to late to teach an old brain new tricks.