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Scottish and US Studies Highlight Link Between Physical Activity and Brain Health

Two research studies published today suggest that physical activity may not only protect against signs of brain ageing in people in their 70’s, but it is also associated with lower rates of dementia in people over the age of 90.

Signs of brain ageing

Scientists from the University of Edinburgh have revealed that exercise may be more beneficial for protecting against signs of brain ageing than mental activity. The research, published on 23 October in the journal Neurology, followed 691 volunteers from a research group called the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936. All the participants were born in 1936, and the team has been studying the factors affecting their memory and thinking ability as they age.

When they were 70, the volunteers completed questionnaires rating their physical activity and how often they participated in social and intellectual leisure activities. Three years later, they had an MRI brain scan to look for structural features in the brain associated with cognitive decline.

The researchers found that volunteers who reported higher levels of physical activity had less brain shrinkage three years later when their scan was compared to an estimate of their brain size from youth. They also had fewer structural features in the brain normally associated with a decline in memory and thinking skills. In contrast, the amount of mental activity reported by volunteers was not associated with signs of ageing on brain scans.

Dr Simon Ridley, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, 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 the 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.”

Physical activity in the oldest old

Researchers from the University of California have followed 629 people over the age of 90, revealing that better physical performance is linked to lower rates of dementia in the oldest old. The study is published online on 22 October in the journal Archives of Neurology.

The volunteers, including 31 centenarians, completed a range of physical activities including a four metre walk, five timed chair-stands and a 10-second standing balance task. They were scored based on their ability to complete each task and also underwent memory and thinking tests.

The scientists found that participants who were unable to walk were more than 30 times more likely to have dementia. Those who had better physical performance were less likely to have the condition.

Dr Ridley said: “Age is the biggest risk factor for dementia, and with more people living into their 90s and beyond, understanding the factors affecting brain health in the oldest old will be increasingly important. This study reports higher rates of dementia in people over 90 who are unable to complete light physical tasks, but it is hard to draw firm conclusions on cause and effect at this stage.

“While the findings highlight the profound effect that dementia can have on our whole body, more research will be needed to find out whether the lack of movement may have contributed to the condition. With research into dementia so desperately underfunded, we must ensure that research into Alzheimer’s and other dementias remains a national priority.”

This material has been published with the kind permission of Alzheimer Research UK.

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