Exercise Protects Against Brain Shrinkage

June 6, 2013

Here’s one more reason to stay active, regardless of age: Seniors who engaged in regular physical activity had less shrinkage of areas of the brain critical for thinking and memory, according to a new report. Even walking a few times a week could help to keep the brain sharp into old age, the findings suggest.

For the study, published in the journal Neurology, researchers at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland enlisted 638 men and women, starting at age 70. Over the next three years, the participants completed detailed questionnaires about their daily activities, including how often they exercised or engaged in intellectual leisure time activities like reading. They were also given MRI scans that measured the brain’s white matter, a part of the brain critical for thinking and memory.

Three years later, at age 73, those participants who were the most physically active had less shrinkage of their white matter and other areas of the brain critical for thought than those who got little or no exercise. The researchers controlled for factors like I.Q., other medical problems and social class, which may have affected white matter volume and brain health, but still the correlation held.

The brain tends to shrink with age, a process that has been linked to declines in cognitive skills. And brain shrinkage has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease in other studies.

But as this study showed, “people in their 70s who participated in more physical exercise, including walking several times a week, had less brain shrinkage and other signs of aging in the brain than those who were less physically active,” said study author Alan J. Gow. “Our results show that regularly exercising in old age is potentially important to protecting the brain as we age.”

Participating in mentally stimulating activities like reading or doing crossword puzzles, which have been linked to better brain function and a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s disease in other research, did not have an effect on brain volume in this study. However, the study only lasted three years, which may have been too short a time for effects to become apparent. Engaging in such activities earlier in life or over longer periods may have benefits, the authors note.

Other research has shown that social interaction and mental challenges have other benefits, including living longer and a better quality of life, so everyone should strive to stay mentally and socially engaged regardless of age.

By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by William J. Netzer, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.

Source: Alan J. Gow, Mark E. Bastin, Susana Munoz Maniega, et al: “Neuroprotective lifestyles and the aging brain: Activity, atrophy, and white matter integrity.” Neurology, October 23, 2012 Vol. 79: pages 1802-1808.


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