Increased physical and mental activity linked to cognitive reserve in women

21 July 2022

New research suggests that more mental and physical activity may help to preserve thinking skills of women, more so than men. The journal Neurology published the findings today (Wednesday 20 July).

What we know already

Research shows that mental activity as well as physical activity, particularly in midlife, could have a protective effect on the brain and on your health in later life.

Researchers have suggested that this activity helps build ‘cognitive reserve’ – our brain’s ability to cope and keep working, even in the face of damage from diseases like Alzheimer’s.

What happened in this study?

The researchers analysed data from a multi-ethnic group of study volunteers from New York City and an average age of 76. The participants filled out a questionnaire on their levels of physical activity and cognitive stimulation.

Questions on cognition included whether the volunteers, read magazines, books, or played games like cards or bingo.

Researchers then conducted MRI brain scans on a sub-group, looked to see whether people had the APOE4 risk gene for Alzheimer’s disease, and performed a suite of cognitive tests probing thinking speed and memory.

What did the researchers find?

The researchers found that more physical activity was linked with better thinking speed reserve in women, but not in men. Greater physical activity was not associated with memory reserve in either men or women.

Taking part in more mental activities was associated with greater thinking speed reserve for both men and women.

What our expert said:

Dr Sara Imarisio, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:
“Keeping physically active and staying sharp are key pillars of maintaining good brain health. In this study, researchers looked at the impact of physical and mental activities on cognitive reserve, particularly related to speed of processing information and memory.

“These are interesting findings with physical exercise not affecting memory reserve for either men or women. However, cognitive activities were beneficial for mental processing in men and women, and linked with better thinking reserve in women without a specific Alzheimer’s risk gene called APOE4, but not men.

 

“While this research highlights potential differences in factors affecting the cognitive reserve of men and women, it doesn’t tell us what causes this link between sex, physical activity and cognitive reserve. This study has limitations, including the fact volunteers self-reported how much physical and cognitive stimulation they had and didn’t look at dementia. To be able to draw firm conclusions we need to see carefully controlled trials that compare different levels of people’s activity, and which monitor brain changes and mental processing speed over time.

“As well as staying physically active, and mentally sharp, the best current evidence suggests that both men and women can support a healthy brain by not smoking, controlling blood pressure and cholesterol, drinking within the recommended guidelines, eating a balanced diet, and keeping socially connected. Visit www.thinkbrainhealth.org.uk to find information and advice on brain health.”