Short bursts of exercise (rather than a crossword) best way to keep brain young and alert

  • People in their seventies who walked several times a week had less brain shrinkage
  • Research implies it is never too late to benefit from exercise

By Jenny Hope

PUBLISHED: 15:00 EST, 22 October 2012 | UPDATED: 03:32 EST, 23 October 2012

Forget the crossword –  going for a walk may be better insurance against developing dementia, say researchers.

A new study found physical exercise – rather than mind-stretching activities –  offers the best protection against excessive shrinking of the brain in later life.

Research suggests that brain shrinkage may lead to problems with memory and thinking, which are key symptoms of dementia.

Exercising in old age may protect the brainExercising in old age may protect the brain

In Britain, around 820,000 people have dementia, with most suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Previous research has found regular exercise can cut the risk of developing dementia by a third, while other studies suggest keeping the brain active by doing crosswords, playing cards and computer work.

But study author Alan Gow, from the University of Edinburgh, said the new study provided objective evidence that exercise is critical for brain health.

He said: ‘People in their seventies 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.

‘On the other hand, our study showed no real benefit to participating in mentally and socially stimulating activities on brain size, as seen on MRI scans, over the three-year time frame.’

Altogether 638 people from Scotland born in 1936 who have been involved in a long-term study of ageing took part in the latest research.
They were asked to fill in questionnaires at the age of 70, and were given MRI scans at 73 years old.

The group gave details about their exercise habits, ranging from moving only in connection with necessary household chores to keeping fit with heavy exercise or participating in competitive sports several times per week.

They also reported their participation in social and mentally stimulating activities.

The study found after three years, people who participated in more physical activity experienced less brain shrinkage than those who exercised minimally.

Those doing more exercise also had larger volumes of gray matter in the brain, showing that fewer brain cells had died.

Findings are published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

Dr Gow said: ‘Our results show that regularly exercising in old age is potentially important to protecting the brain as we age.’

Professor James Goodwin, head of research at Age UK which funds the Disconnected Mind research project that supported the study, said: ‘This research is exciting as it provides vital clues as to what impacts the way our brain ages and how we could tackle mental decline.

‘If we can establish definitively that exercise provides protection against mental decline, it could open the door to exercise programmes tailored to the needs of people as they age.

‘We already know that exercise is important in reducing our risk of some illnesses that come with ageing, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.

‘This research reemphasises that it really is never too late to benefit from exercise, so whether it’s a brisk walk to the shops, gardening or competing in a fun run it is crucial that, those of us who can, get active as we grow older.’

Dr Simon Ridley, head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK charity, said ‘This study links physical exercise to fewer signs of ageing in the brain, suggesting that it may be a way of protecting our cognitive health.

‘While we can’t say that exercise is the causal factor in this study, we do know that exercise in middle age can lower the risk of dementia later in life.

‘It will be important to follow these volunteers to see whether these structural features are associated with greater cognitive decline over the coming years. More research is also needed to tease out how physical activity might be having a beneficial effect.

‘We need to understand more about the risk factors of cognitive decline, but this knowledge can only come through research. We must continue to support dementia scientists to provide the answers.’
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Posted on October 23, 2012, in Health / Medicine, Science / Technology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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