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The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimates there were 401,300 Australians living with dementia last year. With Australia’s ageing and growing population, it’s predicted dementia diagnoses will more than double in the next three decades

As the body of research around dementia and cognitive decline continues to grow, we discover more about which factors can help slow down or protect against these conditions.

Its well-known social connection is important, and diet, exercise and genetics all play a part. But what about working out the brain?

Monash University study of more than 10,000 older Australians with a median age of 74 has shed  light on how to best help patients lower their dementia risk.

The research found that those who routinely engage in literacy and mental acuity tasks are 11% less likely to develop the condition. Tasks included attending education classes, keeping a journal, playing games such as chess and crosswords, and using computers.

Meanwhile, researchers found creative hobbies such as craft, knitting, painting and reading are less likely to reduce risk, but could still decrease it by 7%.

‘The cognitive stimulation from such activities can increase resilience against brain pathologies by increasing the number of neurons, enhancing synaptic activity, and permitting higher efficiency in using brain networks,’ the study found.

The researchers didn’t find that social networks and outings had a significant influence on someone’s risk of developing dementia. We know from other studies that having strong social connections has a protective effect against dementia, so this was an unusual finding.

But the researchers said that among the cohort of people they studied, most reported strong existing social networks or, at the least, good social connections in earlier parts of their life. The authors suggest that this might be responsible for a good baseline level of protection against dementia in the study, upon which activities like chess, computer use and journaling created further variability.

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