If you needed another reason to keep exercising until a ripe old age, look no further. Exercise may slow brain ageing by up to 10 years in older people, according to one study. Fortunately, running is one of the main types of high-activity exercise that reaps the maximum benefits.
A study led by neurologists at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine found that exercise in older people is associated with a slower rate of decline in thinking skills that occurs with ageing.
“Our study showed that for older people, getting regular exercise may be protective, helping them keep their cognitive abilities longer” said study author Clinton B. Wright, M.D., M.S., associate professor of neurology at the Miller School.
People who reported light to no exercise experienced a decline equal to 10 more years of ageing compared with people who reported moderate to intense exercise, according to a population-based observational study published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
For the study, researchers looked at data on 876 people enrolled in the Northern Manhattan Study who were asked how long and how often they exercised during the two weeks prior to that date. An average of seven years later, each person was given tests of memory and thinking skills and a brain MRI, and five years after that, they took the memory and thinking tests again.
Of the group, 90 percent reported light exercise or no exercise. Light exercise could include activities such as walking and yoga. They were placed in the low-activity group. The remaining 10 percent, placed in the high-activity group, reported moderate- to high-intensity exercise, which could include activities such as running, aerobics or calisthenics.
When looking at people who had no signs of memory and thinking problems at the start of the study, researchers found that those reporting low activity levels showed a greater decline over five years than those with high activity levels on tests that measured how fast they could perform simple tasks and how many words they could remember from a list. The difference was equal to that of 10 years of ageing. The difference also remained after researchers adjusted for other factors that could affect brain health, such as smoking, alcohol use, high blood pressure and body mass index.
“Physical activity is an attractive option to reduce the burden of cognitive impairment in public health because it is low cost and doesn’t interfere with medications,” said Wright. “Our results suggest that moderate to intense exercise may help older people delay aging of the brain, but more research from randomized clinical trials comparing exercise programs to more sedentary activity is needed to confirm these results.”
One thing is clear.
When getting engaged in high-intensity activity, think about the long run. It is a marathon, not a sprint, so plan your sessions accordingly and always (or at most times!) keep something in the tank for day after. And the day after that.
Brace yourself for a lifetime of running.
P.S. And here is a link to the Greek story I wrote about this in Runner magazine: