Researchers in the US have found that older adults who are more physically active in later life have better memory and thinking skills. They also found that this association was not affected by having Alzheimer’s or signs of other neurodegenerative diseases. The results are published Wednesday 16 January in the medical journal, Neurology.
The researchers analysed data collected from older adults who took part in annual memory thinking assessments as part of the Memory and Ageing Project. To assess physical activity, a group of 454 participants, both with and without dementia, wore watches that measured their level of movement over a seven day period.
Researchers analysed brain tissue donated by these people after they had died to look at several brain changes characteristic of neurodegenerative disease. The scientists examined the association between participants’ level of physical activity in later life, signs of diseases in brain tissue and cognitive skills at a time near to when they died.
They found that people who were more physically active tended to have better thinking skills. This was also the case for people the researchers identified with brain problems after they died.
Dr David Reynolds, Chief Scientific Officer at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:
“Keeping physically active has been linked to a range of health benefits including better cognitive health and a lower risk of dementia, but we don’t understand the biological mechanisms that explain how physical activity could limit a decline in memory and thinking.
“While some previous research suggests that exercise could reduce the development of brain changes involved in diseases like Alzheimer’s, this study found that physical activity was linked to better memory and thinking skills even when the researchers took Alzheimer’s brain changes into account.
“One possible explanation for these findings is that people with worse memory and thinking skills simply tend to be less active. The best way to establish cause and effect in this relationship is with carefully controlled long-term trials that are designed to sift out the effects of exercise from the myriad of other factors that could affect brain function over time.
“Alzheimer’s Research UK is now funding work to see how feasible it is for people in midlife to take up exercise as part of a healthier lifestyle, with a view to larger trials that assess the effect on brain health.
“The best current evidence indicates, in addition to staying physically active, not smoking, controlling blood pressure and cholesterol, only drinking in moderation, eating a balanced diet, and staying mentally active are linked to better brain health as we age.”