My father-in-law, age 86, recently completed a round of surgery for glaucoma. Gradually, over the past three years, his eyesight had diminished. He willingly handed over his keys to his wife, and now she is the main driver in the family.
But prior to that, he spent years tying flies for his beloved sport of fishing. He possessed a great passion for reading historical biographies and collecting Oregon coastal rocks. One might think his sedentary endeavors, including playing cribbage on the computer, would have been dangerous to his health.
Science says this is not always the case.
In a study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a peer reviewed journal of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), researchers have concluded we should not sit idle and twiddle our thumbs, as our mothers might have scolded us for doing. But it’s important to distinguish between time spent sitting without engaging in brain activity, such as watching television, and time spent sedentary in the body, but with the mind active while playing cards on the computer, doing puzzles, knitting, and, of course, writing.
The PNAS study involved analyzing the records of nearly 150,000 study participants in the UK, all over the age of 60, none of whom were diagnosed with dementia at the time of entering the study. Part of the study included tracking their use of television and computer time over a period of close to 12 years. At the end, 3,500 participants had developed dementia. First author, Dr. David Raichlan of the University of Southern California, said, “This cohort is really amazing. This big group really gives us the ability to tease out some associations that you wouldn’t find in smaller surveys.”
The authors also conceded how physical activity continues to be the most important activity in terms of staving off a dementia diagnosis. Puzzle and gaming fans alike must be cheering for the results as vindication for their time in a chair.
For any one activity, the difference lies in levels of passivity. How active can one engage with the brain in pursuits some might view as mindless? In my Italian language class, the instructor assigns Italian crossword puzzles. They are rudimentary, and sometimes, I respond instinctively. For other words, I am forced to look up a translation, or sound out words. And it turns out those Wordle games we played during the pandemic were good for our brains, though boasting about Wordle scores may not have been necessary for better brain health.
My father-in-law has become a foremost expert authority on many topics, based on audio books he now listens to. I consistently send him links to interesting books which he can download. Somehow, he manages to get through an entire audio book without falling asleep, something I cannot do and therefore do not listen to them while even in the car.
Also included the study were words no writer wants to read. “Because of the nature of the study, it’s really hard to figure out whether or not there’s some kind of shared confounding factor and these are, just, like a marker of general lifestyle characteristics. What we do know is that sitting for long periods of time has negative physiological ramifications,” explained Dr. Raichlan.
My father-in-law continues his lap swimming at the senior community pool. He and his wife find time to attend their grandchildren’s ballgames. And when given the opportunity, he still pegs more points than I do when we play cribbage, giving me an excuse to sit for a while and strategize on how to beat him.
Annette Januzzi Wick is a writer, speaker, and author of I’ll Have Some of Yours, a journey of cookies and caregiving. (Three Arch Press). A frequent contributor to Cincinnati.com, her work has appeared in Cincinnati Magazine, nextavenue.com, Still Point Arts, 3rd Act Magazine, Ovunque Siamo, Belt Magazine and Creative Nonfiction (both forthcoming). Visit annettejwick.com to learn more.