Winter 2016

Exercising for Brain Health

Study finds that physical activity doesn’t necessarily improve cognitive function as we age

In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers including Kieran Reid, a scientist in the Nutrition, Exercise and Sarcopenia Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts, looked to see whether exercise could stave off dementia in seniors.

They used data from the Lifestyle Interventions and Independence for Elders study, a trial of 1,635 sedentary seniors originally designed to test whether exercise could prevent or delay mobility problems, such as walking or getting out of a chair. Seniors were randomly assigned to one of two groups: a physical-activity group—which did 50 minutes of walking, strength training and balance and flexibility exercises several times a week—or those who participated in a class on healthy aging.


Illustration: Harry Campbell

In the latest study, scientists analyzed seniors’ cognitive scores before and after the intervention, looking at such skills as working memory, recall and reasoning.

After two years, the researchers found no overall difference in cognitive function between the two groups: Both had the same proportion of seniors who developed mild cognitive impairment and dementia. However, for adults over age 80 and for those who had lower mobility at the beginning of the study, executive function was better in the physical-activity group compared to the health- education group.

It is possible that both the physical-activity and health-education programs had an equally positive effect, rather than none at all, the researchers said. And the finding on executive function is notable, because the ability to organize thoughts and plan tasks is important for staying independent as we age. —Katherine Pett, N16

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