Regular exercise keeps the brain healthy

New research suggests that people over the age of 70 who exercise, suffer less from age-related brain problems than those who do not.

Psychologists and Neuroimaging experts, based at the University of Edinburgh, assessed the levels of physical activity of more than 700 people over the age of 70. They also recorded whether they took part in mentally stimulating activities such as reading and participating in social groups. MRI scans were then used to measure the volume of brain tissue and the volume of the brain’s white matter, which transmits messages around the brain.

The study published today in the Journal of The American Academy of Neurology, found that people over 70 who took regular exercise showed less brain shrinkage over a three-year period than those who did little exercise. In terms of white matter they found that people over 70 who were more physically active had fewer ‘damaged’ areas – visible as abnormal areas on scanning –than those who did little exercise. They did not find there to be any benefit to brain health for older people from participation in social or mentally stimulating activities.

Greater brain shrinkage is linked to problems with memory and thinking and so the findings suggest that exercise is potentially one important pathway to maintaining a healthy brain both in terms of size and reducing damage.

Dr Alan Gow,head researcher said: “Our results suggest that to maintain brain health, physical activity may be more beneficial than choosing more sedentary activities. We are excited by the next stages of this research as we seek to understand more about what might underlie the effect, but in the meantime, increasing physical activity – even a short walk each day – can only be encouraged.”

Professor James Goodwin, Head of Research at Age UK who fund the Disconnected Mind research project, said:   “We already know that exercise is important in reducing our risk of some illnesses that come with ageing, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. This research reemphasises that it really is never too late to benefit from exercise, so whether it’s a brisk walk to the shops, gardening or competing in a fun run it is crucial that, those of us who can, get active as we grow older.”

Abnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. Full medical glossary
Disease of the heart and blood vessels, usually due to atherosclerosis. Full medical glossary
An abbreviation for magnetic resonance imaging, a technique for imaging the body that uses electromagnetic waves and a strong magnetic field. Full medical glossary
A group of cells with a similar structure and a specialised function. Full medical glossary
Relating to blood vessels. Full medical glossary