Physical activity cuts risk of cognitive decline and vascular dementia

Study finds physical activity may have protective benefits for the brain.

Posted on 1st November 2012

Research has found that older people who regularly take part in physical activities have a lower risk of cognitive problems and vascular dementia. The study is a collaborative effort between scientists across Europe and is published in the journal Stroke.

The study involved 638 elderly people with an average age of 74, who had some signs of structural change in the brain but had not been diagnosed with a disability. The volunteers were assessed at the start of the study and detailed information collected about their lives. This included how much physical activity they did, vascular risk factors such as stroke and diabetes, quality of life and depression. They were also given memory and thinking tests, and brain scans to look for changes in the brain indicative of cognitive decline.

The volunteers were then assessed in the same way every year for a three year period. Of the 633 participants who completed the study, 90 were diagnosed with dementia and 147 were assessed as having cognitive impairment but not dementia.

The researchers found that volunteers who engaged in at least 30 minutes of activity at least three days a week had a lower risk of cognitive decline. The risk of vascular dementia was more than halved in those who engaged in physical activity, even after accounting for other factors such as age and education.

Dr Simon Ridley, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:
“This relatively small study provides more support for the view that what is good for your heart is good for your head. We know that damage to the cardiovascular system is linked to dementia and these findings suggest by keeping this system healthy, we can reduce our risk of the condition. As the volunteers used in this study already had early signs of changes in the brain, they may not entirely represent the general population, but there is a growing body of evidence for the benefits of exercise on the brain.

“The next step will be to investigate this link further in larger groups of people and understand the type and intensity of exercise that may be most beneficial. With research into dementia so underfunded compared to other common diseases, we must ensure that funding for research is maintained so that we can find answers for the 820,000 people in the UK living with the condition.”

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