The People's Perspective on Medicine

Reduce Your Risk of Dementia with Physical Activity

Physical activity was linked to less cognitive decline among seniors in a large study. How are you staying active?

Older people who would like to stay sharp can take one simple step: keep moving! Research from Rush University Medical Center suggests that physical activity can reduce elders’ risk of dementia (Buchman et al, Neurology, online Jan. 16, 2019).

How Was the Research on Physical Activity and Cognitive Function Conducted?

The investigators examined 454 older individuals every year for as long as 20 years. The volunteers took cognitive tests and had annual physical exams. They also agreed to donate their brains for examination upon their deaths.

It is more complicated to measure physical activity, other than relying on what people say they are doing. (That doesn’t always correspond well to what they actually do.) To determine the volunteers’ activity levels, each participant wore an accelerometer for seven days during the study. This is a device worn like a wristwatch that measures all movements. These may range from small actions such as walking from one room to another to much larger actions such as a vigorous exercise routine. In addition, the volunteers completed 10 supervised motor performance tests as part of the testing regimen.

What Was the Relationship Between Physical Activity and Dementia?

Some of the study subjects had dementia, while the others did not. The accelerometer picked up differences between these two groups. Those with dementia made an average of 130,000 movements daily, as counted by the accelerometer. That may sound like a lot, but the people who were in better cognitive shape had an average of 180,000 movements daily. Overall, people with better motor skills also scored better on measures of memory and thinking.

Volunteers who moved more during the day were more likely to be thinking clearly and remembering things better. Physical activity and motor skills accounted for 8 percent of the differences in cognitive test scores. Brain autopsies showed that even people with signs of Alzheimer disease did better than expected if they maintained strong physical activity to the end of their lives.

The scientists concluded:

“Physical activity in older adults may provide cognitive reserve to maintain function independent of the accumulation of diverse brain pathologies. Further studies are needed to identify the molecular mechanisms underlying this potential reserve and to ensure the causal effects of physical activity.”

This is not the first study to demonstrate the cognitive benefits of physical activity. A recent study showed that seniors in an active exercise program improved their executive function. Of course, there is also the more immediate reward: taking time to play just makes you feel good!

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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My husband is 83 years young. He plays softball 3-4 times a week and is always one of the top players in his league. He is on a national team that is ranked the best in the US for men age 80 and over. They are not doddering men. They run, jump and hit to beat hell. Amazing.

I am 72 and walk every day plus I volunteer 6 mornings a week doing laundry and sorting clothes for the homeless in Vero Beach Florida. I am on my feet the whole time, doing more walking, lifting etc. Keeping fit and giving of oneself are the secrets to a quality life. The thanks I receive from these folks who live in the woods is monumental. Giving is far better than receiving.

You two are Awesome!!!!!!!!!!!

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