Physical Training May Slow Cognitive Decline as We Age

Physical exercise may help to slow the decline of thinking and memory skills as we grow older, according to a recent study out of the University of Edinburgh.

During the study almost 700 participants took part in cognitive testing and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain at age 70, and again at age 73.

How to Measure Activity Levels First

Questionnaires were used to assess the volunteers' physical activity levels as well as their more cerebral hobbies. Adjustments were made to account for variables like overall health conditions, social class, and age.

Study participants who were at least 70 years old and engaged in regular exercise produced MRI scans showing less deterioration in thinking and memory skills than those who were not physically active.

Estimating the brain size of participants when they were younger, and comparing the earlier MRIs with the current scans, the researchers also analyzed structural features of the brain that generally change with cognitive decline. It was determined that there was less atrophy in the brains of the more frequent exercisers.

What Did They Find?

The researchers found no direct relationship between participants' mental activity or other leisure activities and the presence of brain atrophy that would indicate cognitive decline.

While the study shows that exercise plays a larger role in slowing the decline in cognitive functioning and atrophy of the brain than intellectual hobbies, further research is needed to understand exactly why that is. Researchers stress the importance of following the study subjects in the coming years to see if there are significant changes in structural features of the brain.

Simple Conclusions

The study authors conclude that exercise may have a protective effect on cognitive function as we age. It is already understood that exercise provides important health benefits throughout our lives, but staving off cognitive decline in our senior years may give us more reason to exercise during middle age.

Research into the causes and risk factors for dementia are also key to finding ways to slow or prevent its onset.

The study, performed by Edinburgh's Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, was published in the October issue of Neurology

By Ian Duncan

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