Regular Exercise Helps Protect Aging Brains
Harvard Women's Health Watch
Now four studies, including two randomized trials, add further evidence that regular exercise may be the best thing we can do to stay not only physically healthy but also cognitively sharp into old age. One trial even suggests that exercise can help reverse early cognitive impairment in older women.
Three of the studies appeared in the
In the second study, Canadian researchers randomly assigned 155 women ages 65 to 75 to a once- or twice-weekly progressive strength-training program that used free weights and weight machines -- or to a control group that practiced toning and balance exercises twice a week. After one year, the women who did strength training improved their performance on tests of executive function -- the higher-order thought processes required for organizing, planning, and making choices. In this study, tests showed improvements specifically in the areas of selective attention and conflict resolution. These in turn were associated with improved walking speed (a predictor of falls and fracture risk). The control group didn't improve in these areas.
Previous studies have identified links between aerobic exercise and improvements in executive function in older people. This cognitive benefit was thought to derive from improvements in blood flow to the brain. It's unclear how strength training (which isn't aerobic) confers the same benefit.
In another study of exercise and cognitive function, scientists tracked 3,903 Bavarian women and men ages 55 and over for two years. They found that participants who reported exercising at a moderate level (less than three times a week) or high level (three or more times a week) at the start of the study were half as likely to have developed dementia two years later, compared with those who got no exercise.
A fourth investigation, which appeared in the
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