Computer use, crosswords and games like chess are more likely to help people avoid dementia than knitting or socialising, according to a new study.
The study by Monash University drew data from more than 10,000 Australians above 70-years-old and found that those who routinely kept their mind active with literacy and mental acuity tasks, such as education classes, keeping journals, and doing crosswords were 9 to 11 percent less likely to develop dementia than their peers.
It found that creative hobbies like crafting, knitting and painting, and more passive activities like reading only reduced the risk by 7 percent.
At the other end of the scale, the size of someone's social network and the frequency of external outings to the cinema or restaurant were not associated with dementia risk reduction.
The study did not find any significant difference between men and women and factors like earlier education level and socioeconomic status did not significantly change the results.
Last year about 55 million people globally lived with dementia, with 10 million new cases each year.
The senior author of the study associate professor Joanne Ryan said identifying strategies to prevent or delay dementia was a huge priority.
"We had a unique opportunity to close a gap in knowledge by investigating a broad range of lifestyle enrichment activities that older adults often undertake, and assess which of those were most strongly aligned with avoiding dementia,
"I think what our results tell us is that ... keeping the mind active and challenged may be particularly important."
Associate professor Ryan said the results did not rule out that those naturally drawn to leisure activities linked to positive cognitive health also had specific personality traits that were otherwise beneficial, or they may generally have had better health behaviours.
"While engaging in literacy and mental acuity activities may not be a magic pill to avoid dementia, if that was your goal and you had to choose, our research certainly suggests these are the activities most likely to support prolonged good cognitive health," she said.
The associate professor said social connection may still be quite important to cognitive health and mental wellbeing, even though it did not show a clear link with dementia risk in the study.
"The participants were cognitively healthy, and were likely already leading socially active lives, such that the cognitive benefits of strong social networks may be less obvious in this group compared to the general public," she said.
Participants in this study reported leisure activities in the ASPREE (ASPirin in Reducing Events in the Elderly) Longitudinal Study of Older Persons.
ASPREE is a two-phase research project conducted in Australia and the USA.