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Regular physical activity in older age keeps the brain sharp

03 Feb 2019

Performing physical activity (PA) on a regular basis, regardless of intensity, delivers big benefits in older adults, a study suggests. Moreover, being active in the teenage years helps boost cognitive reserve to protect against age-related decline in executive function.

Researchers looked at 1,826 community-dwelling men and women (mean age 75.1 years; 60 percent female) from the Rancho Bernardo Study of Healthy Aging to examine associations between PA throughout the lifespan and cognitive function in older age.

All participants underwent cognitive testing at older age and reported PA at various time points: as a teenager, at age 30 years, 50 years and presently. Eighty-two percent reported regular PA as a teenager, 62 percent at age 30 years, 68 percent at age 50 and 71 percent in older age. Those who were physically active at time of cognitive assessment were younger and reported better health overall (p<0.05).

Regular PA in older age, regardless of intensity, was associated with better cognitive function, specifically global cognitive function, executive function and episodic memory. PA in older age, but not at any other age, lowered the risk of cognitive impairment by about 20 percent (odds ratio [OR], 0.77; 95 percent CI, 0.60–0.99).

Of note, intense PA in teenage years conferred benefits for late-life global cognitive function in women (p=0.01) but not in men (p=0.20). Teenage PA showed an interaction with older age PA in terms of executive function, such that participants active at both periods performed better than those active at only one period. Similar patterns of associations were observed after excluding individuals with poor health.

The present data demonstrate that even light or moderate PA in later years may help preserve brain health and that regular PA during youth can promote healthy cognitive ageing, researchers said. Additional studies are warranted to evaluate the effect of PA across the lifespan on healthy brain ageing.

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