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Updated 10 June 2016

Exercise may keep your brain 10 years younger

In a new study physically active seniors stayed mentally sharper than their sedentary peers.

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Older adults who exercise regularly could buy an extra decade of good brain functioning, a new study suggests.

The study found that seniors who got moderate to intense exercise retained more of their mental skills over the next five years, versus older adults who got light exercise or none at all.

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On average, those less-active seniors showed an extra 10 years of "brain ageing", the researchers said.

The findings do not prove that exercise itself slows brain ageing, cautioned senior researcher Dr Clinton Wright, a neurologist at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

It's possible, he said, that there are other reasons why active older adults stayed mentally sharper.

Read: Exercise needs differ for seniors

The researchers accounted for some of those other explanations – including people's education levels, smoking habits and health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

And exercise levels were still connected to the participants' performance on tests of memory and "processing speed" – the ability to digest a bit of new information, then respond to it.

Plus, Wright said, it's plausible that exercise would affect those mental skills. Other research has shown that physical activity boosts blood flow to the brain, and may enhance the connections among brain cells, for example.

Highly valuable for cardiovascular health

Exercise can also help manage "vascular risk factors", such as high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol levels and diabetes, Wright pointed out.

That's important because many studies have suggested that some of the same risk factors for heart disease and stroke also boost the odds of dementia.

Read: Quarter of SA seniors don't exercise

The new study findings were published in the journal Neurology.

Dr Ezriel Kornel, a neurosurgeon who was not involved in the study, agreed that the findings don't prove that exercise will keep you thinking clearly.

"It could simply be that people who are drawn to exercise are also at lower risk of cognitive decline," said Kornel, a clinical assistant professor of neurological surgery at Weill Cornell Medical College, in New York City.

That said, he called the study "important", because it at least suggests that exercise could have a big impact on people's mental function as they age.

'Get moving'

"We already know that exercise is highly valuable for cardiovascular health," Kornel said.

The potential to add extra years of healthy brain function might motivate more people to get moving, he said.

Read: It's never too late to start exercising

The findings are based on nearly 900 older adults who took standard tests of memory, attention and other mental skills at an average age of 71. They repeated the tests five years later. At the time of the first test, they also underwent MRI scans of the brain, which allowed the researchers to look for changes associated with early mental impairment.

Overall, 10 percent of the group said they regularly got moderate to high-intensity exercise – which meant activities such as jogging, aerobics and calisthenics.

It turned out that those men and women showed substantially less mental decline over five years than the rest of the group – who were either sedentary or got light exercise, like walking.

When it came to tests of episodic memory – remembering words from a list – less-active and sedentary seniors showed the equivalent of 10 extra years of brain ageing.

According to Wright, the results suggest that a casual walk around your neighbourhood is not enough to preserve brain function as you age.

Read: The shameful health status of SA's elderly

"It seems like we're not going to get off easy," he said. "There's increasing evidence that it needs to be exercise that gets your heart rate up."

The social aspect

However, Wright added, the necessary exercise regimen is far from clear. Seeking some answers, his team is running a trial testing the effects of exercise on stroke survivors' brain function over time.

According to Kornel, exercise could theoretically benefit the brain in a range of ways. "Improved blood flow to the brain is one logical assumption," he said.

But, he added, exercise can also keep people mentally engaged – by making them learn new things or concentrate, for example. And if you exercise with other people, Kornel noted, there's a social aspect, too.

"If you're out in the world, physically active, there are many things going on that are probably not happening when you're just sitting on your sofa," he said.

Read more: 

Exercise is key to health in old age 

Even the very elderly and frail benefit from exercise 

Exercise slows muscle wasting

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