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Exercise helps prevent cognitive decline

We all know exercise is good for our bodies, but it appears it can also be a good way to prevent cognitive decline in later years.

Regular exercise in middle age – from walking the dog to mountain climbing – is the best lifestyle change a person can make to prevent cognitive decline in later years, according to a 20-year study by University of Melbourne.

Researchers followed 387 Australian women from the Women’s Healthy Ageing Project for two decades, making note of their lifestyle factors, including exercise and diet, education, marital and employment status, number of children, mood, physical activity and smoking. 

The women were all aged 45-55 in 1992 when the study began, and their hormone levels, cholesterol, height, weight, Body Mass Index and blood pressure were recorded 11 times throughout the study. They were also asked to learn a list of 10 unrelated words and attempt to recall them half an hour later, known as an Episodic Verbal Memory test.

Study author Associate Professor Cassandra Szoeke said that frequent physical activity, normal blood pressure and good cholesterol levels were all strongly associated with better recall of the words, with the best effects coming from cumulative exercise.

“We now know that brain changes associated with dementia take 20 to 30 years to develop,” Associate Professor Szoeke said.

“The message from our study is very simple. Do more physical activity, it doesn’t matter what, just move more and more often. It helps your heart, your body and prevents obesity and diabetes and now we know it can help your brain. It could even be something as simple as going for a walk; we weren’t restrictive in our study about what type.”

But the key, she said, was to start as soon as possible.

“We expected it was the healthy habits later in life that would make a difference but we were surprised to find that the effect of exercise was cumulative. So every one of those 20 years mattered.

“If you don’t start at 40, you could miss one or two decades of improvement to your cognition because every bit helps. That said, even once you’re 50 you can make up for lost time.”

The study was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Alzheimer’s Association. 

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Alana Lowes

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