Posted on 4 August 2022
Longevity briefs provides a short summary of novel research in biology, medicine, or biotechnology that caught the attention of our researchers in Oxford, due to its potential to improve our health, wellbeing, and longevity.
Why is this research important: Memory loss is a key feature of cognitive decline and of dementia, in which it eventually impacts both long term memory and short term working memory. Long term memory of course refers to the information we retain in our brain for long periods, sometimes for life. Working memory, on the other hand, is the ability to retain small amounts of information while completing a specific task, following which the information is usually discarded. When you read someone’s email address and your brain ‘holds on to it’ just long enough for you to enter it into the address field, you’re using working memory.
Visual artists frequently need to use both their working memory and their long-term memory. Most artists make use of reference images to some extent, and must be able to store that visual information in their working memory while they transfer it to the canvas, often while manipulating it in three-dimensional space. While drawing or painting, artists also retrieve information from their ‘visual library’, a long term store of visual information that is built through study. Can such repeated exertion of memory functions help protect against their decline during ageing?
What did the researchers do: In this study, researchers followed 256 participants aged 85 and over for a median of just over four years. Participants filled in a questionnaire about lifestyle factors at the start of the study. They were then evaluated every 15 months for mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a form of cognitive decline that often leads to dementia. The researchers wanted to see whether certain leisure activities, including artistic activities in mid and later life, were associated with a reduced risk of MCI.
Key takeaway(s) from this research: The researchers found that those who engaged in artistic activities in both midlife and later life were 73% less likely to have mild cognitive impairment by the end of the study than those who did not. That’s a very large effect – larger than that of engaging in social activities (which was associated with a 55% reduced risk).
The fact that this study was prospective (participants reported artistic activities first, and were subsequently less likely to develop MCI) supports the idea that creating art protects against cognitive decline, as opposed to the alternative explanation that cognitive decline makes it harder to engage with art. While cognitive impairment can start to occur decades before it’s detectable by conventional tests, the people in this study had been engaging in art for a long time, which further strengthens the argument that cognitive decline didn’t stop people from being artistic.
Some of the apparent benefits of art may be related to other factors. For example, research suggests that engaging in art improves mental health, with poor mental health being a known risk factor for dementia. There is also research suggesting that those who have received more education are more likely to engage in art. While the researchers attempted to control for such factors, it’s impossible to perfectly control for every possible confounder.
Risk and protective factors for cognitive impairment in persons aged 85 years and older: https://doi.org/10.1212/wnl.0000000000001537
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