A new study reveals that older people who increase their physical activity may reduce their chances of getting dementia. The finding was published in the American Heart Association journal Stroke. The article shows that older, non-disabled people who regularly engaged in physical activity were able to reduce their risk of vascular-related dementia by 40 %, and of cognitive impairment of any aetiology by 60 %. The protective effect of regular physical activity was unaffected by age, education, changes in the brain's white matter, or even previous history of stroke or diabetes, researchers said.
These findings are based on a prospective multinational European study that included yearly comprehensive cognitive assessments for three years. Moreover, the results join part of an increasing body of evidence indicating that regular physical activity promotes brain health, researchers said.
'We strongly suggest physical activity of moderate intensity at least 30 minutes, 3 times a week, to prevent cognitive impairment,' said Ana Verdelho, lead author of the study and a neuroscience researcher at the University of Lisbon, Santa Maria Hospital in Portugal. 'This is particularly important for people with vascular risk factors such as hypertension, stroke or diabetes.'
Dementia is a decline in mental ability. It may be difficult to notice in the beginning as it usually progresses slowly, early indications are when memory, thinking, and judgement are impaired, and personality may deteriorate. It develops slowly, and affects mainly those aged over 60. It is one of the most important causes of disability in the elderly; with the increasing proportion of the elderly in many populations, the number of dementia patients will rise also. The most common cause of dementia in the EU is Alzheimer's disease, which accounts for approximately 50 % to 70 % of cases.
The study included 639 people in their 60s and 70s; 55 % were women and almost 64 % said they were active at least 30 minutes a day, 3 times a week. These activities included gym classes, walking and biking. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise every week, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise, for optimal health. The researchers performed magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests at the beginning and end of the study to gauge white matter changes in the brain, an indicator of possible cognitive decline.
'Damage of the cerebral white matter is implicated in cognitive problems including depression, walking difficulties and urinary complaints,' Verdelho said. 'White matter changes are very common in older people and mainly associated with vascular risk factors like hypertension and stroke.'
Throughout the study, researchers asked participants in phone interviews and clinical visits about depression, quality of life and performing everyday activities. At the end of the follow-up, 90 patients had developed dementia, including 54 with vascular dementia in which impaired blood flow to the brain causes cognitive decline, and 34 patients met criteria for Alzheimer's disease. Another 147 patients had developed cognitive impairment, but not dementia.
It is also worth remembering that regular physical activity can relieve tension, anxiety, depression and anger. While individuals may notice a 'feel-good sensation' immediately following physical activity, most people also note an improvement in general well-being over time during the weeks and months as physical activity becomes a part of their routine.