Exercise may be best way to protect against brain shrinkage

November, 2012

A large study of older adults shows that physical exercise is associated with less brain atrophy and fewer white matter lesions. A small study shows that frail seniors benefit equally from exercise.

A study using data from the Lothian Birth Cohort (people born in Scotland in 1936) has analyzed brain scans of 638 participants when they were 73 years old. Comparing this data with participants’ earlier reports of their exercise and leisure activities at age 70, it was found that those who reported higher levels of regular physical activity showed significantly less brain atrophy than those who did minimal exercise. Participation in social and mentally stimulating activities, on the other hand, wasn’t associated with differences in brain atrophy.

Regular physical exercise was also associated with fewer white matter lesions. While leisure activity was also associated with healthier white matter, this was not significant after factors such as age, social class, and health status were taken into account.

Unfortunately, this study is reported in a journal to which I don’t have access. I would love to have more details about the leisure activities data and the brain scans. However, although the failure to find a positive effect of stimulating activities is disappointing, it’s worth noting another recent study, that produced two relevant findings. First, men with high levels of cognitive activity showed a significant reduction in white matter lesions, while women did not. Women with high levels of cognitive activity, on the other hand, showed less overall brain atrophy — but men did not.

Secondly, both genders showed less atrophy in a particular region of the prefrontal cortex, but there was no effect on the hippocampus — the natural place to look for effects (and the region where physical exercise is known to have positive effects).

In other words, the positive effects of cognitive activity on the brain might be quite different from the positive effects of physical exercise.

The findings do, of course, add to the now-compelling evidence for the benefits of regular physical activity in fighting cognitive decline.

It’s good news, then, that a small study has found that even frail seniors can derive significant benefits from exercise.

The study involved 83 older adults (61-89), some of whom were considered frail. Forty-three took part in group exercises (3 times a week for 12 weeks), while 40 were wait-listed controls. Participants were assessed for physical capacity, quality of life and cognitive health a week before the program began, and at the end.

Those who took part in the exercise program significantly improved their physical capacity, cognitive performance, and quality of life. These benefits were equivalent among frail and non-frail participants.

Frailty is associated with a higher risk of falls, hospitalizations, cognitive decline and psychological distress, and, of course, increases with age. In the U.S, it’s estimated that 7% of seniors aged 65 to 74, 18% of those aged 75 to 84, and 37% of seniors over the age of 85 are frail.

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