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Study finds exercise may slow cognitive decline

A new study provides more evidence of the benefits of exercise. The study found that people with higher physical activity levels had a slower rate of decline on tests of cognitive abilities.

Researchers at Columbia University in New York and the University of Miami in Florida used data from the Northern Manhattan Study, which looked at stroke risk and included neuropsychological exams that test brain functions. The tests measured things like processing speed and different types of memory. For the current study, the researchers looked at 876 women and men who took these tests twice, five years apart. The researchers looked at how their scores changed over five years. Average age of the participants was 71.

The study subjects had also provided information about their exercise habits. About 90 per cent were either inactive, or did light physical activities such as walking or yoga. The other 10 per cent did moderate to heavy activities such as running or aerobics.

When the researchers compared change in test scores between those with low physical activity to those with high physical activity, at first they found no differences. However, when they excluded people who had evidence of cognitive problems at the start of the study, they found significant differences.

Among the 728 study subjects who had no cognitive problems at the start of the study, those with high physical activity had significantly slower decline in processing speeds and episodic memory than those with low physical activity. The researchers note that the degree of decline between the high activity group and low activity group was equivalent to 10 years of cognitive aging.

The results suggest that to get these cognitive benefits from exercise, it may be necessary to be physically active before cognitive decline begins.  

The study authors conclude that promoting exercise may be a good way to help prevent cognitive decline in an aging population, but further research is needed to confirm this. Exercise is inexpensive, does not interfere with medications and has many other health benefits beyond cognitive health.

The study was published online in the American Academy of Neurology’s journal Neurology on March 23, 2016.


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  • A publication of:
  • Women's College Hospital