Any kind of regular exercise at any age helps the brain fight off dementia later in life

LONDON — No matter what you choose to do, from a walk down the street to running a marathon, can help fight off dementia during old age. Researchers at University College London Medical School say any kind of physical activity at any age leads to better brain function later in life. Moreover, researchers note that maintaining a fitness routine throughout adulthood is the best for preserving memory and mental sharpness.

The long-term study, published online in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, reveals that the findings remained “statistically significant” even after factoring in childhood cognitive ability, household income, and education. The team wanted to know if physical activity might be most beneficial in specific “sensitive” periods during the course of someone’s life, or across multiple time periods.

Only 1 in 6 are active throughout life

Researchers examined the strength of links between a series of cognitive tests at age 69 and that person’s reported leisure time activity at the ages of 36, 43, 53, 60 to 64, and 69 among more than 1,400 British men and women. These participants all took part in the 1946 British birth cohort study. The team categorized physical activity levels as inactive, moderately active (1 to 4 times a month), most active (5 or more times per month), and then summed up all five assessments to create a total score ranging from zero (inactive at all ages) to five (active at all ages).

Results show one in nine participants (11%) were physically inactive at all five time points in their lives, 17 percent were active during one time period, 20 percent were active during two or three, 17 percent were active during four age periods, and 15 percent were still active during all five.

The team then assessed cognitive performance at age 69 using a test that analyzes attention and orientation, verbal fluency, memory, and language. They also tested verbal memory — using a word learning test — and processing speed. Study authors made sure to factor in associations with a heightened risk of cognitive decline, including cardiovascular and mental health and carrying the APOE-ε4 gene.

Staying active throughout life reaps the greatest benefits

Overall, study authors find that being physically active at all five time points in time leads to higher cognitive performance, verbal memory, and processing speed at the age of 69. The team adds that the effect is similar across all adult ages, and for those who are 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.”

The UCL notes the strongest association appears among people with sustained cumulative physical activity and later life cognition, as well as those who were most physically active at all ages. The positive association between cumulative physical activity and later life cognitive performance may also have a connection to childhood cognition, socioeconomic position, and education, the team says.

“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,” the researchers write in a media release.

The study authors note this was an observational study and, as such, can’t establish a definitive cause for this connection.

“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.”

South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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