A new study published in the journal Neurology provides further evidence that exercise in older age may slow the rate of cognitive decline.

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Moderate- to high-intensity exercise in older age may slow cognitive decline, say researchers.

Dr. Clinton B. Wright, of the University of Miami in Florida, and colleagues found that adults over the age of 50 who engaged in light or no exercise experienced a significantly faster decline in memory and thinking skills, compared with those who engaged in moderate to intense exercise.

This is not the first study to associate exercise in later life with better cognitive skills. Recent research reported by Medical News Today, for example, suggests that any amount of exercise may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 50%.

And another study reported last October found that regular aerobic exercise during middle and older age may help keep the brain healthy, protecting against behavioral deficits and age-related inflammation in areas of the brain linked to memory and thinking.

It seems studies like these are in abundance, but researchers note that it is important to understand how lifestyle factors may help slow cognitive decline, especially with an aging population.

“The number of people over the age of 65 in the United States is on the rise, meaning the public health burden of thinking and memory problems will likely grow,” notes Dr. Wright.

“Our study showed that for older people, getting regular exercise may be protective, helping them keep their cognitive abilities longer.”

To reach their findings, the team assessed data of 876 adults aged 50 and older – an average age of 71 – free of memory and thinking problems who were part of the Northern Manhattan Study.

As part of the study, participants were asked how often they had exercised in the previous 2 weeks and how long they had exercised for.

Around 90% of the participants reported engaging in either no exercise or light exercise – such as yoga or walking – while the other 10% said they had engaged in moderate- or high-intensity exercise, such as running or aerobics.

Around 7 years later, each participant underwent brain imaging with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and took part in tests of memory and thinking. These cognitive tests were completed again a further 5 years later.

Compared with participants who engaged in moderate- or high-intensity activity, those who did light or no exercise demonstrated a decline in memory and thinking skills over a 5-year period that was comparable to 10 years of aging.

The team says this association remained after accounting for a number of potentially confounding factors, including alcohol consumption, smoking status, body mass index (BMI) and blood pressure.

Commenting on their findings, Dr. Wright says:

Physical activity is an attractive option to reduce the burden of cognitive impairment in public health because it is low cost and doesn’t interfere with medications.

Our results suggest that moderate to intense exercise may help older people delay aging of the brain, but more research from randomized clinical trials comparing exercise programs to more sedentary activity is needed to confirm these results.”

MNT recently reported on a study suggesting a poor diet and lack of exercise may accelerate aging.