ENGAGING in regular physical activity, at any age, is linked to better brain function in later life, according to a study published in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery & Psychiatry.
The long-term research suggests that maintaining an exercise routine throughout adulthood is best for preserving mental acuity and memory.
Although physical activity is modestly associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline, dementia and loss of later life mental acuity, it is unknown whether the timing, frequency, or maintenance of leisure time physical activity across the life course is key to later life cognitive abilities.
Researchers examined the strength of associations between cognitive tests at age 69 and reported leisure time physical activity at the ages of 36, 43, 53, 60-64, and 69 in 1,417 people (53 per cent women) taking part in the 1946 British birth cohort study.
Participants’ physical activity levels were categorised as inactive, moderately active (1–4 times/month), most active (5 or more times/month), and summed across all five assessments to create a total score ranging from 0 (inactive at all ages) to 5 (active at all ages).
Analysis of the results showed that being physically active at all five time points was associated with higher cognitive performance, verbal memory, and processing speed at the age of 69.
The effect sizes were similar across all adult ages, and for those who were moderately and most physically active, “suggesting that being physically active at any time in adulthood, even if participating as little as once per month, is linked with higher cognition,” write the researchers.
But the strongest association was observed for sustained cumulative physical activity and later life cognition, and for those who were most physically active at all ages.
The positive association between cumulative physical activity and later life cognitive performance was partly explained by childhood cognition, socioeconomic position, and education.
However, the researchers acknowledge that this is an observational study and cannot establish cause.
Furthermore, the study included only white participants and had a disproportionately high attrition rate among those who were socially disadvantaged.
No information was available on exercise intensity, duration, or adherence either.
Nevertheless, the researchers conclude that their findings support guidelines to recommend participation in any physical activity across adulthood.
They also provide evidence that encouraging inactive adults to be more active at any time, and encouraging already active adults to maintain activity, could confer benefits on later life cognition.