Exercise is the best way to keep the brain healthy in old age
26 October 2012
People who exercise later in life may better protect their
brain from age-related changes than those who do not, MRI scans of the
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh found that people over
70 who took regular exercise showed less brain shrinkage over a
three-year period than those who did little exercise.
Psychologists and Neuroimaging experts did not find there to be
any benefit to brain health for older people from participation in
social or mentally stimulating activities.
Greater brain shrinkage is linked to problems with memory and
thinking and the researchers say their findings suggest that
exercise is potentially one important pathway to maintaining a
healthy brain both in terms of size and reducing damage.
The researchers also examined the brain's white matter — the
wiring that transmits messages round the brain. They found that
people over 70 who were more physically active had fewer 'damaged'
areas — visible as abnormal areas on scanning — in the white matter
than those who did little exercise.
Additionally, the researchers from the University of Edinburgh
found that the over-70s taking regular exercise had more grey matter
— the parts of the brain with nerve cell bodies.
The Edinburgh team used MRI scans to measure the volume of brain
tissue and the volume and health of the brain's white matter in
almost 700 people.
They studied levels of physical activity which ranged from moving
only for necessary housework to more strenuous forms of exercise
such as keep-fit or taking part in competitive sports.
Scientists also recorded whether or not the participants - all
aged over 70 - took part in mentally stimulating activities such
reading and participating in social groups.
Dr Alan Gow of the University of Edinburgh's Centre for Cognitive
Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology who led the research, said: "Our
results suggest that to maintain brain health, physical activity may
be more beneficial than choosing more sedentary activities. We are
excited by the next stages of this research as we seek to understand
more about what might underlie the effect, but in the meantime,
increasing physical activity - even a short walk each day - can only
Professor James Goodwin, Head of Research at Age UK who fund the
Disconnected Mind research project, 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."
The study is published today in Neurology, the journal of The
American Academy of Neurology and is part of a larger project that
is supported by funding from the Age UK (The Disconnected Mind
project) and the Medical Research Council (MRC).
The study was carried out at the University of Edinburgh's Centre
for Cognitive Ageing and Epidemiology (CCACE), which is funded by
the Lifelong Health and Wellbeing programme, a collaboration between
the UK's Research Councils and Health Departments which is led by
the MRC (www.mrc.ac.uk/LLHW), and at the University's Brain Research
Imaging Centre (www.bric.ed.ac.uk).