As little as 30 minutes of exercise three times a week may cut the risk of dementia in seniors by 40 percent. This physical activity can also help ward off the age-related decline in thinking skills by 60 percent, according to a new study published online November 1, 2012, by the journal Stroke. European researchers followed 639 seniors in their 60s and 70s for three years and checked up on them annually. At the beginning and end of the study, all of the participants underwent MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) tests to look for changes in the brain that can indicate cognitive decline. The investigators also kept in touch with the study participants by telephone and office visits throughout the three years to learn about any depression they may have been suffering, their quality of life and their daily activities. When the study ended, 90 participants had signs of dementia, including 54 with vascular dementia stemming from impaired blood flow to the brain; another 34 had developed Alzheimer’s disease, and 147 exhibited a decline in thinking ability but not dementia. Those who had reported performing regular physical activity were much less likely to have developed signs or symptoms of compromised thinking. The exercise effect (from gym classes, walking or biking) held true regardless of age, education, brain changes and previous history of stroke or diabetes.
My take? This isn’t the first study to show that it is possible to slow age-related dementia via exercise, a lifestyle practice which seems to correlate to better mental function, perhaps because of improved circulation. In addition to regular physical activity, I also recommend exercising your mind. Research shows that the old adage “use it or lose it” applies to your mental power as much as to the rest of your body. Crossword puzzles, mind games, and challenging reading or educational classes can all help you keep your brain agile and strong.