In a study from University College London and elsewhere, scientists found that any regular leisure-time physical activity at any age is linked to better brain function in later life.
But maintaining an exercise routine throughout adulthood seems to be best for preserving mental acuity and memory.
Physical activity is modestly associated with a lower risk of dementia, cognitive decline, and loss of later-life mental acuity.
In the study, researchers looked at the strength of associations between a range of cognitive tests at age 69 and reported leisure-time physical activity at the ages of 36, 43, 53, 60-64, and 69 in 1417 people (53% women) taking part in the 1946 British birth cohort study.
Physical activity levels were categorized as: inactive; moderately active (1–4 times/month); most active (5 or more times/month), and summed across all 5 assessments to create a total score ranging from 0 (inactive at all ages) to 5 (active at all ages).
Some 11% of participants were physically inactive at all 5-time points; 17% were active at one; 20% were active at two and three; 17% were active at four and 15% at all five.
The team showed that being physically active at all 5-time points was linked to 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,
This suggests that being physically active at any time in adulthood, even if participating as little as once per month, is linked with higher cognition.
But the strongest association was found for sustained cumulative physical activity and later life cognition, and for those who were most physically active at all ages.
Together, these results suggest that the initiation and maintenance of physical activity across adulthood may be more important than the timing or the frequency of physical activity at a specific period.
The findings support guidelines to recommend participation in any physical activity across adulthood and 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.
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The study was conducted by Yu-Jie Chiou et al and published in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery & Psychiatry.
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