Gardening may stave off dementia, study finds

Woman Potting Plant In Garden At Home
Woman Potting Plant In Garden At Home - Daisy-Daisy/iStockphoto

Gardeners may receive protections against dementia and lead longer lives, a study has found.

The University of Edinburgh research, which tracked hundreds of people and their lifestyles over decades, found that those who spent time gardening had better brain function in later life than those who did not.

Researchers are now calling for more study of the possible benefits of gardening, claiming it could become a potent weapon against cognitive decline.

A paper in the Journal of Environmental Psychology concludes: “The mentally stimulating nature of gardening, as yet relatively unexplored, might contribute to brain reserve even in older age.

“These results identify a ­promising new line of inquiry for understanding the lifestyle factors that may promote successful cognitive ageing.”

A research team examined data as part of a long-term study which tracks participants throughout their lifetimes.

Participants tested at age 11 then 79

Children born in the Edinburgh area sat an intelligence test aged 11, with hundreds then tracked and asked to sit the same exam at age 79. They also gave details of their lifestyles and brain health. Of the 467 people tested, almost 30 per cent had never gardened, but 44 per cent still did regularly.

The results showed a clear divide between the gardeners and non-gardeners. On average, the 280 who frequently or sometimes gardened had better cognitive ability as pensioners than they did aged 11. But the 187 who had never gardened, or rarely did so, typically had a lower test score than when they were children.

Significantly, the link with gardening ­“persisted after adjusting for education, occupational social class, health factors, and importantly, overall physical activity” it was found. The authors said: “Identifying lifestyle behaviours that facilitate healthy cognitive ageing is of major public interest for the prevention of cognitive decline and dementia.

“The relationship between gardening and healthy cognitive ageing has largely been overlooked. [It involves] not only physical exertion but creativity and planning.

“Engaging in ­gardening ­projects, learning about plants, and general garden upkeep, involve complex cognitive processes such as memory and executive function.

“Consistent with the ‘use it or lose it’ framework of cognitive function, more engagement in gardening may be directly associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline.”

‘Wide range of benefits’

Between the ages of 79 and 90, brain function generally declined across the board, but the earlier advantage of gardeners was maintained.

Gillian Councill, executive lead on brain health and innovation at the charity Alzheimer Scotland, welcomed the findings.

She told The Sunday Post: “It’s encouraging to note the study’s findings that gardening has the potential to promote mental stimulation and improve cognitive function.

“People often don’t realise the wide range of benefits it can bring. For example, digging, planting and pulling weeds will increase hand strength, which research has shown can boost brain health.

“Growing your own food can help you eat a healthier diet; another key factor. And staying connected to other people is beneficial for brain health, so community allotments are a great place to socialise, reducing loneliness and isolation.”