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3.23.2016

Exercise May Slow Brain Aging by 10 Years for Older People

A study led by neurologists at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine found that exercise in older people is associated with a slower rate of decline in thinking skills that occurs with aging. People who reported light to no exercise experienced a decline equal to 10 more years of aging compared with people who reported moderate to intense exercise, according to a population-based observational study published in the March 23 online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

“The number of people over the age of 65 in the United States is on the rise, meaning the public health burden of thinking and memory problems will likely grow,” said study author Clinton B. Wright, M.D., M.S., associate professor of neurology at the Miller School. “Our study showed that for older people, getting regular exercise may be protective, helping them keep their cognitive abilities longer.”

For the study, researchers looked at data on 876 people enrolled in the Northern Manhattan Study who were asked how long and how often they exercised during the two weeks prior to that date. An average of seven years later, each person was given tests of memory and thinking skills and a brain MRI, and five years after that, they took the memory and thinking tests again.

Of the group, 90 percent reported light exercise or no exercise. Light exercise could include activities such as walking and yoga. They were placed in the low-activity group. The remaining 10 percent, placed in the high-activity group, reported moderate- to high-intensity exercise, which could include activities such as running, aerobics or calisthenics.

When looking at people who had no signs of memory and thinking problems at the start of the study, researchers found that those reporting low activity levels showed a greater decline over five years than those with high activity levels on tests that measured how fast they could perform simple tasks and how many words they could remember from a list. The difference was equal to that of 10 years of aging. The difference also remained after researchers adjusted for other factors that could affect brain health, such as smoking, alcohol use, high blood pressure and body mass index.

“Physical activity is an attractive option to reduce the burden of cognitive impairment in public health because it is low cost and doesn’t interfere with medications,” said Wright, who is also the Evelyn F. McKnight Chair for Learning and Memory in Aging and the Scientific Director of the McKnight Brain Institute. “Our results suggest that moderate to intense exercise may help older people delay aging of the brain, but more research from randomized clinical trials comparing exercise programs to more sedentary activity is needed to confirm these results.”

The study was a collaboration between the University of Miami and Columbia University, and was supported by the National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

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