Older adults who maintain a high level of ordinary physical activity, such as house cleaning and walking the dog, as well as exercise, have more gray matter in their brains than those who are less active, according to a study conducted at Rush University Medical Center.
The gray matter in the brain includes regions responsible for thinking and feeling, memory, speech, controlling muscle movement, and more.
The volume of gray matter is an important measure of brain health, but it often begins to decrease in late adulthood, even before symptoms of cognitive dysfunction appear.
“More gray matter is associated with better cognitive function, while decreases in gray matter are associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other related dementias,” said study leader Shannon Halloway,
“A healthy lifestyle, such as participating in lifestyle physical activity, is beneficial for brain health, and may help lessen gray matter atrophy,” she continued.
The study measured the levels of lifestyle physical activity by 262 older adults recruited from Rush’s Memory and Aging Project, an ongoing epidemiological cohort study that recruits seniors from retirement communities and subsidized housing facilities in and around Chicago. They participate in annual clinical evaluations and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, and donate their brains and other parts of their bodies for research after their deaths.
Instead of relying on self-reported physical activity, which can be inaccurate, study participants wore a non-invasive device called an accelerometer continuously for seven to ten days to measure the frequency, duration and intensity of a participant’s activities over that time.
Lifestyle physical activity, such as gardening and cleaning house, is a more realistic type of physical activity for older adults than structured exercise programs that require them to go to a gym, according to Halloway.
“Accessibility becomes an issue as one ages,” Halloway said. “Transportation can be a problem. Gym settings can be intimidating for any individual, but especially so for older adults.”
The mean age of participants was 81, while the mean age of studies Halloway used as a reference was 70 years. However, no one was included in the new study who had a diagnosis or symptoms of dementia, or even mild cognitive impairment; a history of brain surgery; or brain abnormalities such as tumors, as seen on MRIs.
Halloway’s analysis found the association between participants’ actual physical activity and amounts of gray matter remained after other factors associated with lower levels of gray matter were considered, such as education levels, body mass index, age, and gender.
“Our daily lifestyle physical activities are supportive of brain health, and adults of all ages should continue to try and increase lifestyle physical activity to gain these benefits,” Halloway said.
The study was published in The Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.
Many studies have shown the importance of physical activity in aging. A recent study from Tufts University found that seniors who added only 48 minutes of moderate physical activity a week improved their overall physical capabilities and decreased their risk of disability.
A recent Harvard study published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation found that older women who engage in more physical activity at higher intensities could reduce their risk of dying by as much as 70 percent.
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