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Puzzling Finding Relates Exercise to Brain Health

Oct 23rd, 2012
Staff Writer

Cognitive stimulation showed no effect on mental health, while physical stimulation || with exercise had a dramatic affect. Photo credit: iStockThe human brain naturally shrinks with old age, a phenomenon that may lead to neurological disorders and memory loss. A healthy diet and mental stimulation are age-old remedies for reducing this natural decline, but a new study has found a surprisingly effective treatment that may change the way that doctors treat the elderly.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, retrieved medical records from 638 Scots born in the year 1936 in an investigation of the human brain. At the age of 73, all 638 participants were scanned with a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine to map out the matter behind the mask.

Subjects were asked to complete a questionnaire describing their habits for the three years prior to the scan: levels of leisure and physical activity, such as social events, puzzles, reading and exercise.

The study, published in the October 23rd issue of the medical journal Neurology, found significant correlations between habit and health.

Higher levels of physical activity were associated with larger areas of gray and white matter, less atrophy, and fewer white matter lesions (all indications of a healthy functioning brain). Leisure activity, even mentally stimulating ones like reading, puzzles, and conversation, were associated with normal-appearing white matter, but no other significant cognitive changes.

Professor James Goodwin, head of the study’s financial supporting charity Age UK, shared his thoughts on the results: “This research re-emphasises that it really is never too late to benefit from exercise, so whether it’s a brisk walk to the shops, gardening or competing in a fun run, it is crucial that, those of us who can, get active as we grow older.”