Research Supporting the Benefits of Physical Activity on Cognitive Health in Older Adults

For years, researchers have been examining the link between exercise and brain health. This is particularly relevant for older adults who may have or be at risk for Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia, as they search for lifestyle interventions which could help slow the progression of cognitive decline. A growing body of evidence has been accumulating in the field, pointing out the many and varied benefits of physical activity for the older adult’s brain, and a recent study published in the journal Neurology added new insights.

Knowing that higher levels of physical activity has been positively associated with lower risk of Alzheimer’s Disease and a slower rate of cognitive decline, a team of researchers gathered results of cognitive testing, exercise and non-exercise physical activity data obtained via an activity monitor, and a motor skills score, from a total of 454 study participants. They then examined the participant’s autopsies for signs of common brain pathology, including Alzheimer’s Disease, Lewy Body disease, cerebral arteriosclerosis and atherosclerosis, and others.

The results were clear: higher levels of daily physical activity were associated with better cognitive and memory scores, as were higher motor abilities. This remained true regardless of brain pathology; meaning, more physical activity and better motor skills had a benefit on cognitive abilities even when the individual had Alzheimer’s Disease or other brain diseases on autopsy.

Although more research is needed to establish causation, and to examine the mechanism of the impact exercise has on the brain, this study adds fuel to the fire promoting the encouragement of adopting daily physical activity routines to help protect and preserve cognitive function later in life. With an estimated 5.7 million Americans currently living with Alzheimer’s Disease, and that number projected to rise to nearly 14 million by 2050 (Alzheimer’s Association, 2018), any possible interventions which could improve one’s independence and quality of life are increasingly valuable.

Buchman, A.S., Yu, L., Wilson, R., Lim, A., Dawe, R.J., Gaiteri, C., … Barnett, D.A. (2019). Physical activity, common brain pathologies, and cognition in community-dwelling older adults. Neurology. Retrieved from http://n.neurology.org/content/early/2019/01/16/WNL.0000000000006954

Alzheimer’s Association, Facts and Figures (2018). Retrieved from https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/facts-figures

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