The link between exercise and cognitive decline has been well researched and documented. One recent study found that any amount of exercise can reduce an individual's risk of Alzheimer's disease by 50 percent. A similar study found that regular exercise for individuals in middle age and up was able to keep their brains healthier, particularly in areas of the brain linked to memory. The most recent study in this area was conducted at the University of Miami, Florida and researched how exercise impacted thinking skills in individuals over the age of 50.
The Miami study, headed up by Dr. Clinton B. Wright, began with gathering data for 876 adults over the age of 50 with an average age of 71. None of these individuals had pre-existing cognitive issues. Initially, participants were surveyed to discover their exercise habits.
About 90 percent of the participants reported engaging in no exercise, or light exercise, in the previous two weeks. Yoga or walking would be classified as light exercise for the purpose of this study.
The remaining 10 percent reported engaging in activities like running or aerobics, which this study classified as moderate to high intensity exercise.
After seven years, participants underwent MRIs for brain imaging, and took tests for memory and thinking. Similar tests were given again another five years later, 12 years after the initial survey.
The findings of the cognitive testing drew a stark difference between those in the 'no exercise' group and those in the 'moderate exercise' group. When compared to those who regularly participated in at least moderate exercise, the individuals who did not exercise regularly aged about twice as fast. As the study puts it,
"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 research team then went to work to eliminate other factors that could be causing these results. Those factors included alcohol consumption, smoking status, body mass index and blood pressure. After accounting for these factors, the link to a lack of exercise and an increased rate of cognitive decline remained.
These results are not meant to suggest that exercise cures cognitive impairment, or even stops it completely. This study only concludes that moderate to high intensity exercise in older adults often slows the rate of cognitive decline and delays the aging of the brain. And, as Dr. Wright notes, more research is needed to confirm these results.
For the time being, it seems clear that regular exercise can be extremely beneficial for seniors and have lasting impacts on their mental and physical health.
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