Portrait of a senior black man with a tennis racket
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Leisure activities may play a significant role in the relationship between loneliness and cognitive functions in older adults, according to the results of a new study.

Researchers from Beijing Normal University and the University of California, Irvine, published the results of their study Tuesday in the journal Nature. They found an association between higher levels of loneliness and poorer general cognitive ability, executive function and memory in older adults.

But they also found that leisure activities — including mental, physical and social activities — appeared to mediate those relationships.

The study involved 10,465 Chinese older adults from the Beijing Aging Brain Rejuvenation Initiative, an ongoing study examining the brain and cognitive decline in community-dwelling older adults. Study participants underwent a series of neuropsychologic assessments, including a brief cognitive screening tool evaluating orientation, memory, calculation, language, visuospatial abilities and attention. They also were tested in five cognitive domains: memory, language, attention, execution and visual space.

Participants also rated their feelings of loneliness; 82.4% of participants said they experienced mild or no loneliness, 14.8% said they felt moderate loneliness and 2.8% said they felt severe loneliness.

When asked about their participation in leisure activities — including reading, writing, participation in senior citizen university (an online learning platform run by the China Association of the Universities for the Aged), crafting or playing chess, poker or mahjong — the results showed that the higher the sense of loneliness reported, the less participation the older adults had in leisure activities and the worse cognitive function they experienced.

Last year, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, announced a “National Strategy to Advance Social Connections” to address an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation.” 

In the wake of that advisory, the senior living industry held up assisted living as a way for older adults to strengthen social connections, bolstered by previous research.

The findings of the new study, according to the authors, suggested that loneliness has a profound effect on introspective higher-order cognitive functions, such as thinking, memory retrieval, future planning and emotion regulation. Its effect on externally directed cognitive functions — attention, language and spatial abilities — appeared to be less pronounced.

The researchers said that their findings highlight the importance of focusing on the mental health and daily activities of older adults, which may support cognitive health and improve quality of late life.