Exercising regularly in old age may stop the human brain from shrinking and showing signs of aging better than engaging in mental or social activities. That’s what a new study from Edinburgh University states. This was revealed by combing through the brain scans of 638 people past the age of retirement, who were more physically active and had less brain shrinkage over a three-year period.
The scientists published their findings in the journal Neurology. The reported exercise didn’t have to be strenuous. Going for a walk several times a week sufficed. However, the scientists report that doing exercises that challenged the mind had little impact in stopping brain shrinkage. “Our study showed no real benefit to participating in mentally and socially stimulating activities on brain size, as seen on MRI scans, over the three-year time frame.”
People over the age of 70 who are more physically active had fewer damaged areas in the brain’s white matter than those who did little exercise. They also had more gray matter. It’s a known fact that brains tend to shrink with age, and this shrinking is linked to poorer memory and thinking. Previous studies have shown that exercise helps reduce the risk of dementia and can slow down its onset.
Scientists haven’t yet identified why this happens. Exercise makes blood flow to the brain, delivering oxygen and nutrients to brain cells, which could be a factor. Exercise in middle age can lower the risk of dementia later in life. It will be interesting to follow these volunteers and see whether these structural features are associated with greater cognitive decline over the coming years.
Reference: “Neuroprotective lifestyles and the aging brain: Activity, atrophy, and white matter integrity” by Alan J. Gow, Mark E. Bastin, Susana Muñoz Maniega, Maria C. Valdés Hernández, Zoe Morris, Catherine Murray, Natalie A. Royle, John M. Starr, Ian J. Deary and Joanna M. Wardlaw, 22 October 2012, Neurology.