A new study from the University of Edinburgh suggests that gardening keeps the brain healthy in old age.

By Mark Howarth for the Scottish Daily Mail

17:29 23 June 2024, updated 17:59 23 June 2024

  • People who garden have better cognitive abilities as pensioners than those who don’t



It’s a hobby that’s all about promoting growth and keeping often decades-old shrubs in the best health possible.

Now a new study has shown that gardening can help keep the brain healthy in old age.

The groundbreaking research, carried out by psychologists at the University of Edinburgh, monitored hundreds of Scots and their lifestyles for almost a century.

And it has been found that time spent gardening can offer protection against the modern scourge of dementia by the age of 80, regardless of wealth and education.

The paper, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, concludes: ‘The mentally stimulating nature of gardening, which has been relatively unknown until now, may contribute to keeping the brain active even in old age.

New academic study shows the benefits of digging, weeding, planting and other garden activities.

‘These results identify a promising new direction of investigation to understand lifestyle factors that may promote successful cognitive aging.’

Alzheimer’s Scotland described these findings as ‘encouraging’.

Gillian Council, the charity’s executive lead for brain health and innovation, said: ‘People often don’t realise the wide range of benefits gardening can have.

‘Digging, planting and weeding improves hand strength, which research has shown also improves brain health.

‘Growing your own food can help you eat a much healthier diet; this is another important factor.

‘And being connected to other people is beneficial for brain health, so community allotments are a great place for social interaction, reducing loneliness and isolation.’

The research team collected the data as part of a long-term survey of brain function called the Lothian Birth Cohorts.

In 1921 children born in and around Edinburgh were given intelligence tests at the age of eleven to measure their reasoning and arithmetical ability.

Hundreds of them were discovered later at the turn of the century and took the same quiz at age 79.

They also provided details of their lifestyle and underwent regular assessments of their brain health until the age of 90.

Of the 467 people tested, nearly 30 percent had never gardened in their lives, but 44 percent gardened regularly even in old age.

The results showed a clear divide.

On average, the 280 people who gardened often or occasionally had better cognitive abilities when they were pensioners than they were when they were eleven years old.

But the 187 people who had never gardened or had gardened only occasionally had lower test scores than they had in childhood.

Dementia occurs when the brain becomes incurably impaired to the point that it becomes difficult to remember, concentrate, and solve problems.

It now affects around 100,000 Scottish people and accounts for 13 per cent of all deaths.

An unhealthy lifestyle increases the risk of developing this disease, but keeping the brain active and getting adequate sleep helps prevent it.

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β€œThe connection between gardening and healthy cognitive aging has been largely overlooked,” said Dr. Jeanne Corley, lead author of the study.

He added: ‘Getting involved in gardening projects, learning about plants and general garden maintenance involves complex cognitive processes such as memory and executive function.

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

Dennis Barrett, 76, spends around 30 hours a week on his plot at Budhill and Springboig Allotments, on the east side of Glasgow.

The retired car parts sales executive said: ‘After a stressful career, I’m out in the fresh air. I feel more relaxed; I sleep well, eat well and feel good.

‘But I understand that gardening keeps the mind active too. You have to have a plan and you can take that plan home with you. I already have seeds ready for next year.

‘And you learn something new every day.’

He added: ‘There’s nothing like the taste of something straight out of the tree or the ground. It’s just like eating.’

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