100-year study shows gardening sharpens minds

Woman in garden. | Newsreel
A long-term study has found gardening provides benefits later in life. | Photo: Select Stock

A study spanning almost 100 years has found time spent gardening improves cognitive function later in life.

Researchers in Scotland have been following hundreds of people born in 1921 who took the Scottish Mental Survey in 1932.

This group, known as the Lothian Birth Cohort, sat an intelligence test aged 11, with hundreds of participants asked to sit the same exam at age 79.

Dr Janie Corley, from The University of Edinburgh, said the study found that those who spent time gardening had better cognitive function in later life than those who did not.

“Importantly, this was the case even when accounting for a person’s socio-economic status, time spent in education, childhood cognitive ability, health, and overall level of physical activity in older age,” Dr Corley said.

She said the findings provided some of the first evidence that gardening activity in older age was associated with small, but detectable, cognitive benefits over the course of a lifetime.

The intelligence tests taken by the group included questions requiring verbal reasoning, spatial ability, and numerical analysis.

Dr Corley said throughout the long-term study participants also gave details of their lifestyles and completed frequent assessments of their thinking skills up to the age of 90.

She said of the 467 people tested, almost 31 percent had never gardened, but 43 percent regularly did.

“On average, the 280 who frequently or sometimes gardened showed greater lifetime improvement in cognitive ability compared with those who never gardened or rarely did so.”

Dr Corley said between the ages of 79 and 90, cognitive ability, including memory, problem solving, and word fluency, generally declined across the board, but the earlier advantage of gardeners endured.

“Identifying lifestyle behaviours that facilitate healthy cognitive ageing is of major public interest for the prevention of cognitive decline and dementia,” Dr Corley said.

“Gardening is a key leisure activity in late adulthood. Engaging in gardening projects, learning about plants, and general garden upkeep, involves 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.”

Read the full study.