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Dementia: Movement, Activity Helps Maintain Memory in Older Adults

January 16, 2019

Despite brain lesions or biomarkers linked to dementia, older adults that exercise regularly or participate in routine physical activity, such as housework, may maintain more of their memory and thinking skills, according to a recent study. Researchers from Rush University Medical Center published their findings online in Neurology.

“We measured levels of physical activity in study participants an average of two years prior to their deaths, and then examined their donated brain tissue after death, and found that a more active lifestyle may have a protective effect on the brain,” said Aron S. Buchman, MD, lead author of the study paper and associate professor in the Department of Neurological Sciences at Rush University Medical Center. “People who moved more had better thinking and memory skills compared to those who were more sedentary and did not move much at all.” 

For the study, Dr Buchman and colleagues assessed 451 older adults. Of the observed participants, 191 had dementia and 263 did not. All of the participants received physical exams and thinking and memory tests every year for 20 years. The study participants donated their brains for research upon their deaths—91 years was the average age at death.

The researchers gave each participant a monitor called an accelerometer roughly two years before death. The device, which was worn around the wrist, monitored physical activity around the clock. Dr Buchman and colleagues evaluated seven days of movement data for each patient and calculated an average daily activity score and the results were measured in counts per day. The overall average was 160,000 counts per day. Specifically, the researchers found that participants without dementia had an average of 180,000 counts per day and participants with dementia had an average of 130,000 counts per day.

Overall, Dr Buchman and his colleagues found that higher levels of daily movement may be linked to better thinking and memory skills. Additionally, participants who had better motor skills, which help with movement and coordination, also had better thinking and memory skills.

“Exercise is an inexpensive way to improve health, and our study shows it may have a protective effect on the brain,” said Dr Buchman. “But it is important to note that our study does not show cause and effect.

“It may also be possible that as people lose memory and thinking skills, they reduce their physical activity. More studies are needed to determine if moving more is truly beneficial to the brain.”

Julie Gould

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