New United States research has found that keeping active in old age, whether it’s by doing exercise or just doing the housework, could help maintain memory and thinking skills, even in those who have signs of dementia.
Carried out by researchers at Rush University Medical Center, the new study looked at 454 older adults, 191 of whom had dementia and 263 of whom did not.
Participants were given physical exams and asked to complete thinking and memory tests every year for 20 years. In addition, at an average of two years before death, the participants were also asked to wear an accelerometer to measure their physical activity for a period of seven days.
Using the data collected, the researchers were able to calculate an average daily activity score, which was measured in counts per day. The overall average was 160,000 counts per day, although people without dementia had an average of 180,000 counts per day, while people with dementia had an average of 130,000 counts per day.
As all participants had also agreed to donate their brains for research upon their deaths, with the average age at death 91 years, the researchers were also able to examine the donated brain tissue to look for lesions and biomarkers of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
The findings, published in Neurology, showed that higher levels of daily movement were linked to better thinking and memory skills, with even a small increase in activity appearing to reduce the risk of dementia.
Those who had better motor skills, which help with movement and coordination, also had better thinking and memory skills.
Physical activity also appeared to improve test scores even after the researchers had taken into account the severity of participants’ brain lesions, with the team finding that the relationship was consistent in both people who had dementia and people who did not have dementia.
“We measured levels of physical activity in study participants an average of two years prior to their deaths, and then examined their donated brain tissue after death, and found that a more active lifestyle may have a protective effect on the brain,” said Dr. Aron S. Buchman, lead author of the study paper. “People who moved more had better thinking and memory skills compared to those who were more sedentary and did not move much at all.”
The team noted that although exercise may help protect the brain as we age, further research is needed to investigate this relationship.
“Exercise is an inexpensive way to improve health, and our study shows it may have a protective effect on the brain,” said Buchman. “But it is important to note that our study does not show cause and effect.”
“It may also be possible that as people lose memory and thinking skills, they reduce their physical activity,” he added. “More studies are needed to determine if moving more is truly beneficial to the brain.” JB