Exercising in your 70s 'may stop brain shrinkage'

Older cyclist Regular exercise protects the brain, experts suspect

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Exercising in your 70s may stop your brain from shrinking and showing the signs of ageing linked to dementia, say experts from Edinburgh University.

Brain scans of 638 people past the age of retirement showed those who were most physically active had less brain shrinkage over a three-year period.

Exercise did not have to be strenuous - going for a walk several times a week sufficed, the journal Neurology says.

But giving the mind a workout by doing a tricky crossword had little impact.

The study found no real brain-size benefit from mentally challenging activities, such as reading a book, or other pastimes such as socialising with friends and family.

Start Quote

More research is also needed to tease out how physical activity might be having a beneficial effect”

End Quote Dr Simon Ridley Alzheimer's Research UK

When the researchers examined the brain's white matter - the wiring that transmits messages round the brain - they found that the people over the age of 70 who were more physically active had fewer damaged areas than those who did little exercise.

And they had more grey matter - the parts of the brain where the messages originate.

Experts already know that our brains tend to shrink as we age and that this shrinkage is linked to poorer memory and thinking.

And previous studies have shown that exercise helps reduce the risk of dementia and can slow down its onset.

But scientists are still baffled about why this is.

'Never too late'

Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, delivering oxygen and nutrients to brain cells, which may be important.

Or it may be that as people's brains shrink, they become less inclined to exercise.

Regardless of why, experts say the findings are good news because exercise is an easy thing to do to boost health.

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.

"While we can't say that exercise is the causal factor in this study, we do know that exercise in middle age can lower the risk of dementia later in life.

"It will be important to follow these volunteers to see whether these structural features are associated with greater cognitive decline over the coming years. More research is also needed to tease out how physical activity might be having a beneficial effect."

Prof James Goodwin, head of research at Age UK, the charity that provided the funding for the research, said: "This research re-emphasises 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."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    #66 vebeus - I sympathise with dad's situation but don't base your dismissal on a case study of 2 pple as much anyone can base conclusions on this limited anecdotal evidence these researchers have looked into more cases, bear in mind that not every finding fits everyone, some will always sit outside the norm/median it's a fact and genetics will also override such findings, eg your mother's status.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    2 Hours ago
    "Those of us who live in the real world of rain, ice, snow, gales and steep hills have a different opinion".

    ..... If I go for a brisk walk where I live I am breathing in exhaust fumes no matter which direction I go - can the experts tell me if I am going to be healthier walking and breathing in the muck?

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    Now in My 50's I find that I undertake a considerable amount of exercise going up and down stairs forgetting why I went there in the first place!

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.


    Anecdote is not evidence....evidence comes from comparing many hundreds, preferably thousands of people.

    Your Father's genes were clearly highly suceptible to cognitive decline, whereas your Mother's gene are clearly highly resistant.

    You best hope you got the latter.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    I have my doubts that this is true. My father who has always walked and kept healthy and in his mid 70's still walks several times a day has memory loss, and yet my mother, who has never been partial to exercise and now uses a trolley to walk with, is still as sharp as a pin. So much for that theory!

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    Exercise is GOOD for you at any age. There is so much evidence for this, for instance resistance training slows osteoporosis in later life.

    Nothing is a guarantee, you can only hope that every little helps.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    We're designed to move, if we don't we don't function to our potential. Our minds might have evolved to sit in front of a TV/PC but our bodies are still the same as our ancestors that lived 100,000 years ago and they want to be tretaed the same. And as for peoples idea of a good diet, they usually have no idea how wrong convential 'wisdom' can be.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    "Exercising in your 70s 'may stop brain shrinkage'..."


    Judging by many round here, it's a bit late by then.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    I appreciate some of the skeptics in relation to word "May", but simply anti-exercise comments - are these people serious!
    I regularly cycle with many people in their 70s & 80s who seem to continue to defy the aging process both physically and mentally & I see 1st hand that it isn't having any negative effect.
    Take the exercise and if they find a link, brilliant, if they don't what have you lost?

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    Surely just common sense.

    The human body did not evolve to be sedentary, so regular exercise must be necessary for it's general well-being, and it's likely that the brain will benefit as much as any other organ.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    It would seem to me that exercise would be relevant to most aspects of our well being, so it seems highly likely that the brain would benefit as much as muscles for example, probably due the flow of blood carrying oxygen.
    The outcome of this study would have been remarkable if it had shown that less exercise was good for the brain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    I do wish that these people would give up, eating so and so May do this, performing so and so COULD do this, using such and such a product MAY do so and so. They trot out these edicts every now and then purely to maintain their goverment funding,

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    This is an excellent article and should be shared widely in the Alzheimer's and dementia communities.

    For anyone touched by Alzheimer's this is a must read.

    Bob DeMarco, Founder
    Alzheimer's Reading Room


  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    Very encouraging news. If we learn in due course that a causal link has been determined, we can relax in the knowledge that nature is dealing with the idle. Too bad that successive governments fail to show comparable resolve.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    "...going for a walk several times a week sufficed, the journal Neurology says. "
    A yes, how those journal writers must enjoy striding past the thatched cottages on a sunny morning, down to the shops to pick up the morning newspaper, shouting a cheery 'hello' to the postman on the way.

    Those of us who live in the real world of rain, ice, snow, gales and steep hills have a different opinion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Is the government intentionally being that transparent in trying to cull off a few thousand gullible OAPs?

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    That is the effect and benefit of exercise or hard physical work over a period of many years. It could also be an effect of adrenaline exposure in the fight for survival!

    As soon as the brain goes, there is no benefit to the greater common interest of the "pack" and therefore the survival of a useless body might depend solely on the abilities of the last robust part of that body; the brain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    May point to take away from this research is the work 'MAY'

    You 'MAY' become a footballer if you have ever eaten toast

    You 'MAY' become rich if you ever done the lottery

    You 'MAY' be unhealth if you ever had fast food

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    43.FatPeace - "......"exercise should be made compulsory"
    A gross infringement of people's basic civil liberties And how would you enforce it: fines? jail?......"

    I would have thought beinng sentanced to a few weeks tethered to a treadmill could work......

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    If old age diminishes your brain power - Ed Milliband must be almost prehistoric.


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