January 16, 2019
2 min read

Moving more in old age may protect memory, thinking

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Older adults with higher levels of physical activity and movement had better memory and thinking skills regardless of whether they had dementia, according to findings published in Neurology.

“Lifestyle factors such as physical activity are being intensely studied as a means to maintain brain health and reduce Alzheimer’s disease (AD) dementia in our aging population,” Aron S. Buchman, MD, professor in the department of neurological sciences at Rush University Medical Center, and colleagues wrote. “We previously reported that a higher level of total daily physical activity was related to lower risk of AD dementia and a slower rate of cognitive decline in older adults. Yet, the mechanisms underlying these associations are poorly understood.”

Buchman and colleagues investigated how physical activity affects the incidence of AD and other brain pathologies and cognition in older adults. The researchers enrolled 454 older adults with (n = 191) and without (n = 263) dementia. Every year for 20 years, the participants underwent physical exams and thinking and memory tests. Participants allowed for their brains to be studied after death (average age, 91 years).

The participants received an accelerometer that monitored their activity at an average of 2 years prior to death. The device was worn around the participants’ wrist and tracked both small and vigorous movements daily. Movement data were collected every 7 days and then averaged into a daily activity score which was measured as counts per day. Brain tissue was examined for lesions and biomarkers of dementia and AD after death.

Older adults with higher levels of physical activity and movement had better memory and thinking skills regardless of whether they had dementia.
Source: Adobe Stock

Overall, participants had an average of 160,000 counts per day. Patients without dementia had higher average movement (180,000 counts per day) than those without dementia (130,000 counts per day).

Participants with higher levels of total daily activity (estimate, 0.148; 95% CI, 0.053-0.244) were more likely to have better cognition, including thinking and memory skills. Participants with better motor abilities (estimate, 0.283; 95% CI, 0.175-0.39) were also more likely to have better cognition.

Increasing physical activity by one standard deviation was associated with a 31% decrease in the likelihood of dementia. Increasing motor ability by one standard deviation was associated with a 55% decrease in the likelihood of dementia.

After adjusting for severity of brain lesions, the association between physical activity and thinking and memory test scores remained the same. The association was observed in both patients with and without dementia and was not related to the presence of AD or related disorders.

“Exercise is an inexpensive way to improve health, and our study shows it may have a protective effect on the brain,” Buchman said in a press release. “But it is important to note that our study does not show cause and effect. It may also be possible that as people lose memory and thinking skills, they reduce their physical activity. More studies are needed to determine if moving more is truly beneficial to the brain.” – by Alaina Tedesco


Disclosures: Buchman reports no relevant financial disclosures. Please see study for all other authors’ relevant financial disclosures.