Introduction. Although special attention has been paid by researchers to leisure activities and their salutogenic effects on improving and maintaining good health and well-being, the evidence on the effects of various types of mind games and brain exercises on health remains limited, with some preliminary results indicating a positive impact on mental health. In our study, we examined prospective associations within a 6-year perspective between three leisure activities that stimulate mind and 21 outcomes in the domains of (1) physical health, (2) emotional well-being, (3) quality of life, (4) cognitive impairment, and (5) longevity. We focused on mind engaging leisure activities that involve different kind of directed cognitive effort, distinguishing relaxed, serious, and social ones, as well as differentiating between solitary and social activities.

Methods. Data originated from 19,821 middle-aged and older adults from 15 countries participating in the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE). The temporal associations were examined using generalized estimating equations. All models were controlled for prior sociodemographic, personality, and lifestyle factors, health behaviors, history of health conditions, and pre-baseline values of all outcome variables simultaneously. All missing covariate and outcome variables were imputed using chained equations. Bonferroni correction was used to correct for multiple testing. The E-values were calculated to examine the sensitivity of associations to unmeasured confounding. Secondary analyses under the complete case scenario, after excluding respondents with health conditions as well as using more traditional – including only demographic and socio-economic – covariates were conducted to provide evidence on the robustness of the results.

Results. Reading books, magazines, and newspapers almost every day was prospectively associated with a lower risk of being diagnosed with depression, experiencing pain, limitations in activities of daily living, cognitive impairment as well as with lower scores in loneliness, and more favorable emotional health outcomes. Doing number and word games almost daily was found to be prospectively associated with a lower risk of depression, greater feeling of full energy, and lower risk of death regardless of the cause of death. Doing number and word games sometimes (but not every day) was associated with greater subsequent future time orientation and lower risk of cognitive impairment. Playing cards and games almost daily was found to be prospectively associated with lower scores on the loneliness scale, a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease, but an increased risk of cancer. Additionally, playing cards and games sometimes (but not daily) was found to be associated with subsequent better future and present time assessments, lower risks of depression, of feeling pain, and of limitations in mobility. These associations were independent of demographics, socioeconomic status, personality, prior history of diseases, and lifestyle. The set of sensitivity analyses provided substantial evidence for the robustness of these associations.

Conclusions. Mind engaging leisure activities can be considered a resource for health and well-being. Practitioners may consider each of them as a tool that helps middle-aged and older adults maintain health and good quality of life.