Are leisure activities beneficial to the health of seniors?

Healthy Lifestyle

Leisure activities can be defined as activities done by people in their free time. 

It has been hypothesized that leisure activities improve cognitive function, physical function, and mental health, at least in a western elderly population. 

Leisure activities include things like reading, watching TV, playing games, going out to eat, etc. These activities help older adults stay active and engaged in life. They also provide opportunities to socialize with others.

The possible protective effects related to the slowing of age-related decline have therefore been the subject of research over the past two decades.

Leisure activities such as painting are important for older people. They can help delay the signs of aging and maintain good physical, cognitive and mental health.

Two main explanations have been proposed for the beneficial effects of activities on cognitive function and memory in particular: 1) individuals with higher cognitive function may be more likely to perform cognitively demanding leisure activities; 2) People engaging in intellectually demanding leisure activities may slow cognitive decline. 

A study examined the impact of leisure activities on cognitive function, physical function, and mental health in a group of Japanese elderly people. 

Since most field studies are based on samples from Western countries (e.g., the United States and Germany), little is known about this relationship in Far Eastern countries, including Japan. 

The study included a total of 809 Japanese participants (381 men and 428 women). The age range was from 72 to 74 years old.

The study aims 1) to verify the previous hypothesis that there is a relationship between the practice of leisure activity and successful aging by using a more robust and comprehensive methodological approach; 2) extend the current empirical evidence – which focuses primarily on cognitive function – by examining the impact of activities on less studied dimensions of successful aging such as physical function and mental health and 3) verify that these effects are also present in eastern populations.

Overall, the results published by the researchers support the idea that leisure activities help improve or preserve cognitive function, physical function and mental health, three indicators of successful aging. 

The results are in line with the hypothesis suggesting that intellectually demanding activities (e.g. music, board games, video games, and other form of internet-based brain training) preserve cognitive abilities of the elderly and that conversely, the lack of cognitive stimulation is accompanied by a greater risk of their cognitive abilities.

Thus, the results of the present study support the idea that leading an active lifestyle, assessed here by engagement in leisure activities, is a means contributing to successful aging, regardless of country and culture.

This study, thanks to its rigorous methodological approach, provides a more reliable estimate of the positive impact of leisure activities on cognitive function, including memory, but also on the link that exists between these activities and the preservation of good physical and mental health in the elderly.

Source: Sala G, Jopp D, Gobet F et al. The impact of leisure activities on older adults’ cognitive function, physical function, and mental health. PLoS One. 2019; 14 (11): e0225006. Published November 8, 2019. Doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0225006

Alzheimer’s: beneficial leisure activities for caregivers

Recreational activities benefit the heart health of caregivers caring for people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Take a walk outside, read, listen to music…These activities and many others can reduce the blood pressure of relatives caring for people with Alzheimer’s disease.

“Greater engagement in pleasurable leisure activities was associated with lower blood pressure in caregivers over time, according to the study’s lead author. Participation in leisure activities may have benefits for the cardiovascular system of caregivers. »

The study included 126 caregivers enrolled in the UCSD Alzheimer’s Caregiver Study, a follow-up study evaluating associations between stress, coping, and cardiovascular risk among caregivers. Of the 126 caregivers, 89 were female and 37 were male, with an average age of 74, providing home care for a spouse with Alzheimer’s disease.

In annual interviews over five years, caregivers provided information on the frequency with which they engaged in various leisure activities that they found enjoyable. These ratings were analyzed in association with blood pressure over time.

Caregivers reported high levels of enjoyable activities. Most of them said they spent time outdoors, watched television, listened to music, and read or listened to stories. About half of caregivers reported exercising frequently.

Caregivers who engaged in pleasurable leisure activities more often had lower average blood pressure, compared to those who engaged in fewer leisure activities. In follow-up analyses, these activities were associated with a significant reduction in diastolic pressure (the second number in blood pressure), but not systolic pressure (the largest number).

As expected, caregivers who engaged in physical activity more frequently had lower blood pressure. However, other types of « more sedentary » activities (reading, listening to music, shopping) also led to a reduction in blood pressure.

Blood pressure also decreased following placement in a nursing home or death of the person with Alzheimer’s disease. This was consistent with previous studies that showed caregivers’ health improved when their caregiving duties ended.

“Being a caregiver for a loved one with a disability is a very stressful experience, associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and death. Stress can contribute to high blood pressure, which is the most important risk factor for cardiovascular disease. The new results suggest that leisure activities can prevent the development of arterial hypertension in relatives caring for Alzheimer’s patients,” continues the researcher.

« Although the study cannot determine how many activities caregivers should do, we believe that three to four weekly activities that are enjoyed could have a positive impact on an individual’s blood pressure. »

“We recognize that caregivers may find it difficult to engage in enjoyable leisure activities because they are busy with their caregiving duties,” Dr. Mausbach said. So we work with caregivers to find activities they can participate in with more confidence, even when their spouse is present, and we help them use their schedule well so that they know the times of the day when they are the most able to do activities. If caregivers use respite centers, they are in an ideal position to use some of that time to engage in these activities. »

Source: Brent T. Mausbach et al. Engagement in pleasant leisure activities and blood pressure. Psychosomatic Medicine, 2017; 1.