New research from The University of Edinburgh has found that people who exercise later in life may better protect their brain from age-related changes than those who do not.
The research, funded by Age UK and published today in the journal Neurology, found that people over 70 who took regular exercise showed less brain shrinkage over a three-year period than those who did little exercise.
Exercise did not have to be strenuous - going for a walk several times a week sufficed. The researchers did not find there to be any benefit to brain health for older people from participation in social or mentally stimulating activities.
Greater brain shrinkage is linked to problems with memory and thinking and the researchers say their findings suggest that exercise is potentially one important pathway to maintaining a healthy brain both in terms of size and reducing damage.
The researchers also examined the brain’s white matter – the wiring that transmits messages round the brain. They found that people over 70 who were more physically active had fewer ‘damaged’ areas – visible as abnormal areas on scanning – in the white matter than those who did little exercise.
Additionally, the researchers from the University of Edinburgh found that the over-70s taking regular exercise had more grey matter – the parts of the brain with nerve cell bodies.
Dr Simon Ridley, head of research at Alzheimer's Research UK, said: "This study links physical exercise to fewer signs of ageing in the brain, suggesting that it may be a way of protecting our cognitive health.“
‘Never too late’
Professor James Goodwin, Head of Research at Age UK, said: 'We already know that exercise is important in reducing our risk of some illnesses that come with ageing, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. This research reemphasises 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.'
This research is part of a larger research project, Disconnected Mind which is supported by Age UK.