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Lifelong exercise improves brain function

Policies must promote exercise from early childhood to reduce burden of cognitive decline in old age

Mark Gould

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Lifelong exercise as a child and adult improves cognitive functioning at the age of 50 and even exercise of a lower frequency could offer benefits for cognitive well-being.

People perform better in mental tests at the age of 50 if they have engaged in regular intense activity, such as playing sport, running, swimming or working out in the gym, since childhood according to a new study by researchers at Kings College London.

Author Dr Alex Dregan, a lecturer in Translational Epidemiology and Public Health, says the findings support the need for a lifelong approach when seeking to improve cognitive well-being, which he says is “especially pertinent” given recent concerns over the growth of an ageing population in the UK.

He said: “As exercise represents a key component of lifestyle interventions to prevent cognitive decline, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer, public health interventions to promote lifelong exercise have the potential to reduce the personal and social burden associated with these conditions in late adult years.”

The study published today in the journal Psychological Medicine, was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Biomedical Research Centre at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust and King’s College London, and is one of the first longitudinal investigations to measure the effects of lifelong exercise on the brain.

Using information from the UK National Child Development Study, researchers examined levels of exercise between the ages of 11 and 50 in more than 9,000 individuals.

The data was collected through face-to-face interviews at the ages of 11, 16, 33, 42, 46 and 50, reducing the possibility of inaccurate retrospective accounts of exercise as a child. Participants undertook two measures of cognitive performance, including memory and executive functioning, which were then combined into a third, overall “cognitive index” score.

The memory task involved learning ten unrelated words before immediate and delayed recall was tested. Executive functioning was assessed by asking participants to name as many animals as possible in one minute, which examined verbal fluency, and to cross-through specified letters in a series (letter cancellation), which measured attention, mental speed and visual scanning.

The study found that participants who exercised weekly as a child and as an adult performed better on tests of memory, learning, attention and reasoning at the age of 50 than those who exercised two to three times per month or less.

The preservation of cognitive functioning into later adult years represents a major public health concern, and as such, the government recommends that adults aged 19-64 should exercise for at least 150 minutes per week. Previous research has focused on the achievement of recommended levels and has scarcely explored the benefits of lower levels of exercise. The study carried out by King’s indicates that even exercise of a frequency lower than recommended levels may also contribute to better cognitive functioning.

Dr Dregan said: “It’s widely acknowledged that a healthy body equals a healthy mind. However, not everyone is willing or able to take part in the recommended 150 minutes of physical activity per week. For these people any level of physical activity may benefit their cognitive well-being in the long-term and this is something that needs to be explored further.

“Setting lower exercise targets at the beginning and gradually increasing their frequency and intensity could be a more effective method for improving levels of exercise within the wider population.”

Researchers found that the greatest benefit emerged from participating in lifelong intensive exercise, even after accounting for exercise frequency. Dr Dregan said: “It appears that intensive exercise may offer benefits for brain functioning in later life over and above those resulting from regular yet less intense exercise.”

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