Extra exercise in midlife could protect the brain in later life

People who do greater amounts of moderate-to-vigorously intense physical activity in middle age are less likely to show signs of brain damage 25 years later, a study has found.

Brisk walking, running and biking in midlife may be linked to better brain health in later life, new research suggests.

The study, published in the journal Neurology, found that the more moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity people did from middle age through to later life, the less likely they were to develop brain damage 25 years later.

The results show that physical activity may have a protective effect on the brain, the researchers believe. Better brain health could reduce the risk of developing conditions such as dementia.

“Our study suggests that getting at least an hour and 15 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity a week or more during midlife may be important throughout your lifetime for promoting brain health and preserving the actual structure of your brain,” said Dr Priya Palta, Assistant Professor of Medical Science at Columbia University Irving Medical Centre in New York City.

“In particular, engaging in more than two and a half hours of physical activity per week in middle age was associated with fewer signs of brain disease.”

The researchers asked the 1,604 participants to report their weekly amount of moderate-to-vigorous activity at the start of the study, and then twice more at later times. The researchers classified them as none, low, middle or high.

The participants had an average age of 53, and they attended five physical examinations over 25 years.

At the end of the study, the researchers looked for lesions, or areas of injury or disease in the participants’ brains, and measured the participants’ grey and white brain matter in brain scans.

After adjusting for demographics and lifestyle factors, people who reported no moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity in midlife were 47 per cent more likely to develop small areas of brain damage than people who reported high levels of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity.

“Our results show that staying active during midlife may have real brain benefits,” said Dr Palta. “In particular, consistently high levels of midlife moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity were associated with fewer brain lesions in later life.”

But the study authors note that a limitation of the study is that it relied on participants reporting their own physical activity, which could be inaccurate.

Also researchers did not include physical activity other than leisure time activity – such as work-related or incidental activity.

“This research adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting exercise as an important way we can look after our brain health,” said Dr Sara Imarisio, head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK.

She added: “Just a third of people think it’s possible to reduce their risk of developing dementia, compared to 77 per cent who believe they can reduce their risk of heart disease.

“While there is no sure-fire risk way to prevent dementia, our brains don’t operate in isolation from the rest of our bodies and a good rule of thumb for everyone is that what is good for your heart is also good for your brain.

“The best current evidence suggests that as well as staying physically and mentally active, eating a healthy balanced diet, not smoking, drinking only within the recommended limits and keeping weight, cholesterol and blood pressure in check are all good ways to support a healthy brain as we age.”

Source: BBC News