Cultural activities such as kapa haka and speaking Te Reo may help ward off dementia. This is one of the headlines from the latest report from the wonderful team doing the LiLACS research study at Auckland University, the first long term study of Māori in advanced age. The LiLACS project is proving to be a treasure-trove of insights into the experience of ageing and health for Māori and non-Māori because of the attention paid to working with a large enough sample of both the Māori and non-Māori community to ensure robust research results.

This latest report looks at the impact of dementia alongside side other conditions that impact on quality of life: heart disease (cardiovascular disease), chronic lung disease and diabetes. Not surprisingly, the study finds that the combination of dementia and these other physical health conditions worsened people’s health status and increases their need for health services.

The LiLACS study is the only available data on dementia amongst older Māori so the researchers are cautious about conclusions from their work. The study found that there was no difference in the proportion of people with dementia when comparing Māori and with non-Māori, yet Māori older people are affected more by the main known risk factors for developing dementia – such as lower socio-economic position and less access to higher education and health care. Other risk factors such heart disease and smoking are also higher amongst Māori.

The study suggests that the substantial roles that older Māori have that involve advanced mental (cognitive) activity help preserve cognition in advanced age for Māori. Having important roles to play in their communities along with kapa haka and other cultural activities helps to maintain mental agility. There is also wide evidence that speaking another language is also related to a lower risk of dementia, so it is likely that speaking Te Reo is also helping Māori in advanced aged to reduce their risk of developing dementia. It seems these positive factors are helping to counteract the negative risk factors facing Māori as they age.

The full report of this study is online at the LiLACS Auckland Univesity website.