Can exercise later in life help preserve our brains?

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Physical activity has been touted for years for its ability to prevent and improve symptoms of chronic health conditions such as type two diabetes, heart disease, and depression. Now, a recent study is showing that exercise may be able to help combat the effects of brain aging.

Researchers studied the activity level of more than 400 older adults and then studied their brains post-mortem.

They found that even though most of the people had age-related brain changes, those who had higher levels of physical activity had better levels of cognition.  

Over the 20 year period of which the study was conducted, researchers found that the protection that exercise provided against brain changes was evident for both those with normal cognition and those with dementia.

Cleveland Clinic’s Jagan Pillai, M.D., did not take part in the study, but said it shows that while activity may not prevent brain changes, it can help protect against the symptoms.

“It’s not like increasing physical activity decreases the amount of disease process in your brain, but it helps you somehow compensate and to basically hide the effects of the disease process,” he said. 

New guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO) also suggest physical activity, not smoking, limiting alcohol, eating a balanced diet, and managing blood pressure and weight can help reduce the risk of brain decline.

Dr. Pillai said while experts may not yet know why exercise seems to have a protective effect on the brain, one thing is for sure – getting more activity certainly can’t hurt us.

“I think the answer is very simple; I think the long and very often repeated mantra of better physical activity is helpful, not only in maintaining your heart health, but also maintaining your brain health and it seems to be coming true in every study that’s coming out,” he said. 

Dr. Pillai said more research needs to be done to determine why the positive relationship between physical activity and brain health exists.

Complete results of the study can be found in Neurology.

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