Moderate to intense exercise may protect the brain in old age

August, 2011

Moderate but not light exercise was found to help protect the brain from brain infarcts in some older adults, but not all.

Another study showing the value of exercise for preserving your mental faculties in old age. This time it has to do with the development of small brain lesions or infarcts called "silent strokes." Don’t let the words “small” and “silent” fool you — these lesions have been linked to memory problems and even dementia, as well as stroke, an increased risk of falls and impaired mobility.

The study involved 1,238 people taken from the Northern Manhattan Study, a long-running study looking at stroke and vascular problems in a diverse community. Their brains were scanned some six years after completing an exercise questionnaire, when they were an average of 70 years old. The scans found that 16% of the participants had these small brain lesions.

Those who had reported engaging in moderate to intense exercise were 40% less likely to have these infarcts compared to people who did no regular exercise. Depressingly, there was no significant difference between those who engaged in light exercise and those who didn’t exercise (which is not to say that light exercise doesn’t help in other regards! a number of studies have pointed to the value of regular brisk walking for fighting cognitive decline). This is consistent with earlier findings that only the higher levels of activity consistently protect against stroke.

The results remained the same after other vascular risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking, were accounted for. Of the participants, 43% reported no regular exercise; 36% engaged in regular light exercise (e.g., golf, walking, bowling or dancing); 21% engaged in regular moderate to intense exercise (e.g., hiking, tennis, swimming, biking, jogging or racquetball).

However, there was no association with white matter lesions, which have also been associated with an increased risk of stroke and dementia.

Moreover, this effect was not seen among those with Medicaid or no health insurance, suggesting that lower socioeconomic status (or perhaps poorer access to health care) is associated with negative factors that counteract the benefits of exercise. Previous research has found that lower SES is associated with higher cardiovascular disease regardless of access to care.

Of the participants, 65% were Hispanic, 17% non-Hispanic black, and 15% non-Hispanic white. Over half (53%) had less than high school education, and 47% were on Medicaid or had no health insurance.

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