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Exercise May Slow Brain Aging by 10 Years

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Older men and women who got regular exercise had slower rates of decline in thinking skills with age, a new study reports. The researchers estimate that the memory and thinking skills of of those who reported getting regular moderate to rigorous exercise were, on average, the equivalent of about a decade younger than those who got little or no regular exercise.

“Our study showed that for older people, getting regular exercise may be protective, helping them keep their cognitive abilities longer,” said Dr. Clinton B. Wright, a study author and a professor at the University of Miami in Florida. The findings appeared in Neurology, a journal from the American Academy of Neurology.

The findings add to a growing body of research showing that physical activity is good for the brain and may help to ward off Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

For the study, the researchers followed 876 men and women over 50 who were living in northern New York City. Most were free of serious memory problems like Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia at the start of the study period.

Participants filled out questionnaires about the kinds of physical activities they typically engaged in during their free time. They were asked how often they exercised, how rigorously, and for how long.

Seven years later, they were given tests of memory and thinking skills, as well as an MRI brain scan to looks for signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

The vast majority, about 90 percent of the participants, said they typically got little or no exercise. Light exercises included activities like walking or yoga.

About one in 10 of the study participants said they exercised more rigorously. Such activities included running, aerobics, or calisthenics.

Those seniors who reported getting little or no exercise at the start of the study tended to have greater declines in memory and thinking skills over the next five years. They were much slower to perform mental tasks and could remember fewer words from a list compared to those who were more active.

The researchers controlled for factors like smoking, weight and high blood pressure, all of which can affect brain health. They calculated that those who got little or no exercise had declines in thinking skills that were equivalent to about 10 years of brain aging compared to their more active peers.

“Our results suggest that moderate to intense exercise may help older people delay aging of the brain, ” said Dr. Wright.

Exercise has been shown to protect against a wide range of age-related illnesses, including heart disease and stroke. The findings add to growing evidence that exercise is also good for the brain.

The American Heart Association recommends that all adults, including older ones, strive for an “active lifestyle.” That means getting at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise, or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise. Climbing stairs, playing a sport, walking, jogging, swimming or biking all count. The group also recommends strength and stretching exercises that build overall stamina and flexibility.

Walking may be especially apt choice for beginners or older adults. Several studies have shown that people who walk regularly have a lower Alzheimer’s risk, and may have brain changes that promote cognitive health. See, for example, the ALZinfo.org story, “Walk to Keep the Memory Sharp” at Walk to Keep the Memory Sharp.

Before starting any exercise regimen, check with your physician to determine a level that’s right for you.

By www.ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Marc Flajolet, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.

Source: Joshua Z. Willey, MD, MS; Hannah Gardener, PhD; Michelle R. Caunca, BS; et al: “Leisure-Time Physical Activity Associate With Cognitive Decline: The Northern Manhattan Study.” Neurology, Vol 86, pages 1-7, March 23, 2016

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