A brisk walk speeds up mental agility in women — but not men

MINNEAPOLIS – Going for a brisk walk or bike ride speeds up mental agility among women, but not for men, according to new research. Researchers with the American Academy of Neurology note, however, that mental activities like quizzes and crossword puzzles do boost brain power for both sexes.

The study is the first to identify a gender gap between the benefits of physical and mental activity on thinking.

“We found that greater physical activity was associated with greater thinking speed reserve in women, but not in men,” says lead author Professor Judy Pa from the University of California-San Diego in a media release.

“Taking part in more mental activities was associated with greater thinking speed reserve for both men and women.”

Previous studies have suggested that exercise, both physical and mental, helps to preserve neurons and delays the onset of dementia. Prof. Pa and colleagues found men’s brain health fared best when focusing on mental challenges, while either activity produced good results for women.

Each additional mental activity people participated in corresponded to an average of 13 fewer years of aging in the processing speed of their thinking skills — 17 years for men and 10 years for women.

“As we have arguably few-to-no effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, prevention is crucial. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of treatment,” Pa continues. “To know that people could potentially improve their cognitive reserve by taking simple steps such as going to classes at the community center, playing bingo with their friends or spending more time walking or gardening is very exciting.”

Doubling your physical activity could take 3 years off your brain’s age

Study authors looked at the effects of physical and mental activities such as reading, going to classes, and playing cards or games on cognitive reserve in the areas of thinking speed and memory. Cognitive reserve is the buffer that occurs when people have strong thinking skills even when their brains show signs of the underlying changes associated with dementia.

Greater physical activity does not appear to have a connection with memory reserve in men or women. The study involved 758 people with an average age of 76. Some had no thinking or memory problems, while others had mild cognitive impairment or dementia symptoms. Participants underwent brain scans and completed thinking speed and memory tests during the experiment.

To calculate cognitive reserve, researchers compared thinking test scores to changes in the brain linked to dementia, such as total brain volume in the hippocampus, a key brain region that deteriorates in Alzheimer’s patients.

Participants also answered questions about their usual weekly physical activity and if they participated in three types of activities over the past 13 months. Those include reading magazines, newspapers, or books; going to classes; and playing cards, bingo, or other games.

Each person received one point for each type of activity, for a maximum of three points. For mental activity, participants averaged 1.4 points. For physical activity, participants took part in activities that elevate heart rates (like brisk walking and biking) for an average of 15 minutes per week. The study finds that doubling that amount would be equivalent to 2.75 fewer years of aging when it comes to women’s processing speed in thinking skills.

Researchers also looked at whether the relationship between physical and mental activities and cognitive reserve was affected by the gene that carries the strongest risk for Alzheimer’s, APOE e4. They found that, for women, having the gene lessens the benefits coming from both physical and mental activities.

The study is published in the journal Neurology.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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