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Exercise Can Boost Brains in Older Adults

Staying physically active could help ward off brain damage

By Deb Song

Staying physically active as you age could ward off brain damage that can limit mobility, according to a study conducted by Alzheimer’s disease researchers at Rush University Medical Center.

The study showed that older people who are physically active may be protecting themselves from the effects of small areas of brain damage that can affect their movement abilities. The results of the study were published on March 11 in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

Small areas of brain damage called white matter hyper intensities are seen in MRI scans of many older patients, according to scientists from Rush. Higher levels of this damage have been linked to difficulty walking and other mobility problems.

"Preserving motor function is just as important as preserving mental function to maintain independence and quality of life in older age," says lead researcher Debra Fleischman, PhD, a professor in the departments of neurological sciences and behavioral sciences at Rush.

"Our results suggest that daily physical activity may be able to protect motor function from age-related injury to the brain."

Study monitored movement

For the study — which involved 167 patients with an average age of 80 — participants wore movement monitors on their wrists for up to 11 days. These devices measured exercise and non-exercise activity. Participants also took 11 tests of movement ability, and researchers used MRI scans to assess the level of white matter hyperintensities in the brain.

The researchers found that seniors who exercised the most, even if they had high levels of brain damage, maintained their scores on the movement tests. However, brain damage was associated with lower scores on the movement tests among participants who exercised less.

The findings held after the researchers adjusted for other factors that might influence exercise, such as weight, depression, and conditions that affect blood circulation.

"Virtually everything about Alzheimer's and other dementia appears to be mitigated by physical exercise," says Fleischman. "I think that this study serves to make that case even more compelling."

'Don't have to run marathons'

Fleischman recommends people at any age perform some type of safe and enjoyable movement daily to protect motor function from brain injury that may occur as you get older.

“You don’t have to run marathons, but be active,” says Fleischman.

Fleischman sees a need for a more complete understanding of the biological mechanisms underlying chronic, late-life motor impairment, and the development of effective drug treatments to lessen the effects of brain injury on motor function.

“Until then, efforts to encourage an active lifestyle in older adults will be a critical element in meeting this public health challenge," she says.

The study was supported by the National Institute on Aging, National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities, Illinois Department of Public Health and Rush Translational Science Consortium.


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