Why To Exercise Today: Don’t Get Stupider


Forgive the headline. “Stupid” is a harsh word, though it’s the best descriptor for how I sometimes feel. Rather, shall we say, let us avoid cognitive decline, including dementia.

Two new studies are just out showing that exercise lowers the rate of cognitive impairment in older people. One possible explanation: The brain’s decline can be connected to problems with blood supply, and exercise is good for the cardiovascular system.

From the press release:

CHICAGO – Engaging in regular physical activity is associated with less decline in cognitive function in older adults, according to two studies published Online First by Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archivesjournals. The articles are being released on July 19 to coincide with the International Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease in Paris and will be included in the July 25 print edition.

According to background information provided in the articles, previous research has suggested that physical activity is associated with reduced rates of cognitive impairment in older adults. However, much of this research has apparently been conducted among individuals who are generally in good health. Further, many of these studies rely on self-reports of physical activity, which are not always accurate; and focus on moderate or vigorous exercise, instead of low-intensity physical activity. The two articles being presented today seek to fill in these gaps in the research.

In one article, Marie-Noël Vercambre, Ph.D., from the Foundation of Public Health, Mutuelle Generale de l’Education Nationale, Paris, and colleagues examined data from the Women’s Antioxidant Cardiovascular Study, which included women who had either prevalent vascular disease or three or more coronary risk factors. The researchers determined patients’ physical activity levels at baseline (1995 to 1996) and every two years thereafter. Between 1998 and 2000, they conducted telephone interviews with 2,809 women; the calls included tests of cognition, memory and category fluency, and followed up the tests three more times over the succeeding 5.4 years.

The researchers analyzed data to correlate cognitive score changes with total physical activity and energy expenditure from walking. As participants’ energy expenditure increased, the rate of cognitive decline decreased. The amount of exercise equivalent to a brisk, 30-minute walk every day was associated with lower risk of cognitive impairment.

The other study measured exercise in seniors and found that the more they exercised, the lower their odds of cognitive impairment.

Also, from the release:

In a commentary accompanying the articles, Eric B. Larson, M.D., M.P.H., from Group Health Research Institute, Seattle, notes that these studies serve to “buttress growing evidence that habitual physical activity and fitness are associated with age-related changes in cognition and risk of dementia.”

The key finding of the Vercambre and colleagues study, he writes, “is that older women with high levels of vascular risk constitute a major risk group and that vascular risk is linked to cognitive decline.” Of the work published by Middleton and colleagues, Larson observes, “The fact that the study used a validated measurement of energy expenditure, not just self-report, makes the results of further importance.” Such research, he states, is increasingly needed as the population ages and the health care field attempts to cope with higher rates of cognitive decline.

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