The Benefits of Brain-Boosting Hobbies (2024)

The Benefits of Brain-Boosting Hobbies (1)

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One of the more intuitive connections between lifestyle choices in daily life and brain health relates to mental activity. It just seems to make sense that hobbies or other activities that bend our brains a bit tend to simultaneously improve our cognitive skills. When we look at the related science, it turns out that this hunch is spot on.

What do we mean by “mental activity”? We can define this term in many ways, but common examples include reading, playing a musical instrument or singing, doing crossword puzzles, drawing or painting, taking community courses, playing board games or cards, or going to museums. Note that these hobbies or activities are free or inexpensive and readily available (including free online/virtual museum tours).

Compelling research indicates that however we define mental activity, “it’s all good” for the brain. Some studies have looked at specific activities—such as playing a musical instrument, doing crossword puzzles, or playing games—and have found that people who engage in these hobbies tend to have better memory and executive functioning skills and a reduced risk of dementia. As you may have guessed, reading in multiple forms—books, newspapers, magazines—seems to be a particularly important lifestyle activity for maintaining or enhancing cognitive abilities. Other research suggests that engaging in mentally stimulating hobbies for at least an hour per day may be particularly helpful for the brain, including as a proactive strategy to reduce dementia risk.

Mental cross-training is a good idea too. One study from researchers at Johns Hopkins found that people who have multiple activities that stretch the brain have a much lower risk of developing cognitive problems. In fact, each additional activity that someone incorporated into their life corresponded with a reduction in risk of cognitive decline by 8-11%. Other studies have found that the same pattern applies for Alzheimer’s prevention; compared to those who have few mentally engaging hobbies, those with a larger variety are much less likely to develop dementia. All told, mixing up our activities a bit can really pay off from a brain health standpoint.

We also see that having a mentally stimulating job can result in brain health dividends. Research has found that more complex jobs have a protective effect on the brain, particularly as related to the overall integrity of the brain. Occupations with complex social demands, such as managerial positions, seem to be particularly helpful in preserving brain and cognitive health. If you don’t have a very stimulating job, no worries; there’s evidence that you can make up for a less than ideal level of mental activity at work by engaging in more brain-boosting hobbies outside of your job.

And on a cautionary note: being mentally disengaged in daily life is associated with negative outcomes. Some research has found an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease in those who cut back on their hobbies as they age. Those with fewer intellectual activities have also been found to show atrophy in a region of the brain containing the memory-critical hippocampus. Keep in mind that we don’t need to completely overhaul our daily lives to avoid worrisome brain changes; just reading a bit more of the daily paper or doing crossword puzzles a few times each week might be helpful.

The science consistently indicates that staying mentally stimulated in daily life—ideally, through multiple activities and for at least an hour per day—has many cognitive and brain-related benefits. While finding the time to develop and nurture hobbies is easier said than done, the payoff certainly seems to be worth it.

Adapted from The Brain Health Book: Using the Power of Neuroscience to Improve Your Life by John Randolph, Ph.D., published by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


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The Benefits of Brain-Boosting Hobbies (2024)
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