Image of Andrew Sommerlad, Ph.D.

Involvement in leisure activities is not linked with a lower risk of developing dementia. But some people who develop dementia begin neglecting these activities about 10 years prior to diagnosis, a new study has found.

Researchers tracked health data from more than 8,000 adults with an average age of 56 for nearly 20 years. Participation in leisure activities such as gardening or card playing was not associated with dementia diagnosis during that time, they reported. 

There is no question about the importance of keeping active for general health and well-being, but the results do suggest that “simply increasing leisure activity may not be a strategy for preventing dementia,” said study author Andrew Sommerlad, Ph.D., of University College London, in England. What’s more, changes in leisure activity participation may be an early sign of decline, he wrote.

“It’s plausible that people may slow down their activity level up to 10 years before dementia is actually diagnosed, due to subtle changes and symptoms that are not yet recognized,” he explained. These may include apathy, other social changes and emerging cognitive difficulties, he wrote.

Age also had a notable effect on the results, Sommerlad and colleagues found. Among participants with a higher average age (66), those who took part in more leisure activities were less likely to have dementia diagnosed over the next 8 years than people who took part in fewer activities.

In addition, people whose level of activity participation dropped over the course of the study were more likely to experience dementia than their peers whose participation level remained steady.

The study was published in the journal Neurology.