MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
New research finds that older adults who routinely move either with daily exercise or just simple physical activity like housework may protect their brains against age-related damage. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports on the study published online in the journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Researchers wanted to know how movement of any type affected the brain of older adults who were 70 or older when the study began. They were given yearly tests of cognitive ability. Neurologist Aron Buchman with Rush University Medical Center in Chicago headed the study. For 10 days straight, participants wore Fitbit-like activity monitors which measured everything they did during the day.
ARON BUCHMAN: Whether you're chopping onions or whether you're typing or whether you're sweeping or whether you're running, the activity counts are going to be measured.
NEIGHMOND: Now, what makes this study unique - all participants agreed to donate their brains for research after their death. This meant Buchman was able to analyze brain tissue under the microscope and compare individuals who moved the most to those who didn't move much at all.
BUCHMAN: Higher levels of total daily activity was associated with a lower risk of developing dementia and was associated with a slower rate of cognitive decline.
NEIGHMOND: And what's most surprising, says Buchman - more physical activity meant lower cognitive decline even for people who, on autopsy, had numerous degenerative changes in the brain, things like amyloid plaques, tangles and vascular abnormalities. The take-home message, he says, is empowering.
BUCHMAN: If you lead a more active lifestyle with physical activity, you're going to maintain your cognition even though you're accumulating degenerative changes in your brain.
NEIGHMOND: The keyword here is movement. Anything an older person can do to increase activity is a good thing.
BUCHMAN: It doesn't have to be going to the gym. Even somebody who's limited and housebound who gets up and moves in the house or goes up and down stairs in the house has the potential to benefit.
NEIGHMOND: The findings are positive news, says preventive medicine physician Tim Church with the Pennington Biomedical Research Center.
TIM CHURCH: And what was fascinating was the physical activity seemed to protect against these different lesions or areas of the brain that were damaged.
NEIGHMOND: Creating something of a brain reserve or resilience.
CHURCH: Despite the damage, the physical activity is still allowing the brain to function properly.
NEIGHMOND: It's not clear exactly how physical activity might protect against age-related changes in the brain. Neurologist Buchman hopes to do more research with the donated brains and figure out which proteins or other mechanisms might link increased physical activity to better cognition. For now, though, the message might sound familiar. Get up. Get going, and move around as much as you can. Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
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