Summary: At any age, regular exercise or physical activity helps maintain brain function in old age. However, maintaining a frequent exercise routine throughout life was linked to better mental acuity, memory, and cognition later in life.
Any regular leisurely physical activity at any age is linked to better brain function later in life, but maintaining an exercise routine throughout adulthood appears to be the best way to preserve acuity. mental health and memory, suggests a long-term study published online in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.
Although controlling for childhood cognitive abilities, household income, and education weakened the observed associations, the results remained statistically significant.
Physical activity is modestly associated with a lower risk of dementia, cognitive decline, and loss of mental acuity later in life. But it’s unclear whether the timing, frequency, or maintenance of leisure-time physical activity across the lifespan might hold the key to cognitive abilities later in life.
The researchers were particularly keen to find out whether physical activity might be more beneficial in specific ‘sensitive’ periods throughout life, or over multiple time periods.
To try to find out, they looked at the strength of associations between a series of cognitive tests at age 69 and self-reported leisure-time physical activity at age 36, 43, 53, 60-64, and 69 in 1417 people (53% women) participating in the 1946 UK birth cohort study.
Physical activity levels were categorized as follows: inactive; moderately active (1–4 times/month); most active (5 or more times/month) and summed across the 5 ratings to create a total score ranging from 0 (inactive at all ages) to 5 (active at all ages).
Approximately 11% of participants were physically inactive at all 5 time points; 17% were active at one; 20% were active at two and three years; 17% were active at four years and 15% at every five years.
Cognitive performance at age 69 was assessed using the validated ACE-111, which tests attention and orientation, verbal fluency, memory, language, and visuospatial function, as well as tests verbal memory (word learning test) and processing speed (visual search speed).
Factors associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline – cardiovascular and mental health, and carriage of the APOE-ε4 gene – were also assessed to see if these modified the observed associations.
Analysis of the results showed that being physically active at all 5 time points was associated with higher cognitive performance, verbal memory and processing speed at age 69.
Effect sizes were similar at all adult ages, and for those who were moderately and most physically active, “suggesting that being physically active at all times in adulthood, even if only participating once a month is linked to higher cognition”. write the researchers.
But the strongest association was seen for sustained cumulative physical activity and cognition later in life, and for those who were most physically active at all ages.
The positive association between cumulative physical activity and cognitive performance later in life was partly explained by childhood cognition, socioeconomic position, and education.
But the effect remained significant when these were taken into account, and the associations were not explained by differences in cardiovascular or mental health later in life.
“Together, these results suggest that the initiation and maintenance of physical activity in adulthood may be more important than the timing…or frequency of physical activity at a specific time period,” the researchers say. .
This is an observational study and as such cannot establish causation, and the researchers acknowledge various limitations to their findings.
The study only included white participants and had a disproportionately high attrition rate among those who were socially disadvantaged. No information was available on exercise intensity, duration, or compliance either.
But they nevertheless conclude: “Our results support guidelines for recommending participation in any physical activity in adulthood and provide evidence that encouraging inactive adults to be more active at all times, and encouraging already active adults to maintaining activity, may confer cognition benefits later in life.”
About this exercise and current research on aging
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Original research: Free access.
“Time of physical activity in adulthood on cognition later in life: 30-year follow-up in the 1946 UK birth cohort” by Sarah-Naomi James et al. Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery and Psychiatry
Calendar of physical activity in adulthood on cognition in later life: 30-year follow-up in the 1946 UK birth cohort
To assess how the timing, frequency, and maintenance of physical activity, spanning 30 years into adulthood, are associated with cognitive function later in life.
Participants (n=1417, 53% female) were from the Prospective Longitudinal Cohort Study, 1946 UK Birth Cohort. Participation in leisure-time physical activity was reported five times between ages 36 and 69, ranked in the following categories: not active (no participation in physical activity/month); moderately active (participated 1-4 times/month); the most active (participated 5 times or more/month). Cognition at age 69 was assessed by tests of cognitive status (Addenbrooke’s Cognitive Examination-III), verbal memory (word learning test), and processing speed (visual search speed).
Being physically active, on all assessments in adulthood, was associated with higher cognition at age 69. For cognitive state and verbal memory, effect sizes were similar across adult ages, and between those who were moderately and most physically active. The strongest association was between sustained cumulative physical activity and cognitive status later in life, in a dose-response manner. Adjusting for child cognition, child socioeconomic position, and education largely attenuated these associations, but results mostly remained significant at the 5% level.
Being physically active at all times in adulthood, and to any extent, is linked to higher cognitive status later in life, but maintaining physical activity throughout life was the more optimal. These relationships were partly explained by childhood cognition and education, but independent of cardiovascular and mental health and APOE-E4, suggesting the importance of education on the impacts of activity. physics throughout life.