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Exercise routine ‘can preserve cognitive ability’

Any regular leisure time physical activity at any age linked to better brain function in later life, research suggests

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Maintaining an exercise routine throughout adulthood is linked to preserving mental acuity and memory, a new study has suggested. 

While any regular leisure time physical activity at any age is linked to better later-life brain function, regular exercise was found to have significant benefits. 

Physical activity is often associated with lowering risk of dementia and cognitive decline, but the links between timing, frequency or maintenance of leisure time activity in the longer-term are less known. 

But in this study, links are shown that being active over several stages of life can help achieve higher cognitive performance, verbal memory and processing speed at the age of 69. 

The effect sizes were similar across all adult ages, and for those who were moderately and most physically active, “suggesting that being physically active at any time in adulthood, even if participating as little as once per month, is linked with higher cognition,” said the researchers.

But the strongest association was observed for sustained cumulative physical activity and later life cognition, and for those who were most physically active at all ages.

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“Our findings support guidelines to recommend participation in any physical activity across adulthood and provide evidence that encouraging inactive adults to be more active at any time, and encouraging already active adults to maintain activity, could confer benefits on later life cognition,” the research team state. 

The research looked at the strength of associations between a range of cognitive tests at age 69 and reported leisure time physical activity at the ages of 36, 43, 53, 60-64, and 69 in 1,417 people (53 per cent women) taking part in the 1946 British birth cohort study.

Physical activity levels were categorised as: inactive; moderately active (one to four times/month); most active (five or more times/month), and summed across all five assessments to create a total score ranging from zero (inactive at all ages) to five (active at all ages).

Some 11 per cent of participants were physically inactive at all five time points; 17 per cent were active at one; 20 per cent were active at two and three; 17 per cent were active at four and 15 per cent at all five.

Cognitive performance at age 69 was assessed using the validated ACE-111, which tests attention and orientation, verbal fluency, memory, language, and visuospatial function, plus by tests of verbal memory (word learning test) and processing speed (visual search speed).

Factors associated with a heightened risk of cognitive decline—cardiovascular and mental health, and carriage of the APOE-ε4 gene—were also assessed to see if these modified any observed associations.

The positive association between cumulative physical activity and later life cognitive performance was partly explained by childhood cognition, socioeconomic position, and education.

But the effect remained significant when these were factored in, and the associations weren’t explained by differences in later life cardiovascular or mental health.

“Together, these results suggest that the initiation and maintenance of physical activity across adulthood may be more important than the timing….or the frequency of physical activity at a specific period,” said the researchers.

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