Staying physically active in your 70s could be the best way of preventing brain shrinkage, according to a new study, but mental stimulation has no real brain-size benefit.
Brain shrinkage has been linked to Alzheimer's disease
Experts already know that our brains tend to shrink as we age, a process that has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease. But new research indicates that exercise beats mentally stimulating activities like reading a book when it comes to preventing brain shrinkage.
Scientists from Edinburgh University gave MRI scans to 638 people aged 73 to measure the volume of their brains. Participants were asked about their exercise habits and participation in social or mentally-stimulating activities, and were followed up three years later with another MRI scan.
Writing in the journal Neurology, the researchers discovered that those who were most physically active had less brain shrinkage over a three-year period. They also had fewer damaged areas in the brain’s white matter, as well as more grey matter.
However, there was no real benefit from mentally challenging activities like puzzles, or from other activities like socialising with friends and families.
Researchers say that the exercise did not need to be strenuous to bring about a benefit, and even going for a walk several times a week sufficed in preventing brain shrinkage.
Dr Simon Ridley, head of research at Alzheimer's Research UK, said: "This study links physical exercise to fewer signs of ageing in the brain, suggesting that it may be a way of protecting our cognitive health.
"While we can't say that exercise is the causal factor in this study, we do know that exercise in middle age can lower the risk of dementia later in life."
"It will be important to follow these volunteers to see whether these structural features are associated with greater cognitive decline over the coming years. More research is also needed to tease out how physical activity might be having a beneficial effect."
Scientists are still unsure why exercise helps reduce risk of dementia, but agree that it is an essential factor in keeping physically and mentally healthy. Some private health insurance policies offer discounted gym membership to their customers to encourage them to stay active.
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