Experts from Edinburgh University found that exercising in your 70’s may stop your brain from shrinking and showing the signs of ageing linked to dementia.
Brain scans of 638 people past the age of retirement showed those who were most physically active had less brain shrinkage over a three-year period.
Exercise did not have to be strenuous – going for a walk several times a week sufficed, the journal Neurology says.
But giving the mind a workout by doing a tricky crossword had little impact.
The study found no real brain-size benefit from mentally challenging activities, such as reading a book, or other pastimes such as socializing with friends and family.
When the researchers examined the brain’s white matter – the wiring that transmits messages round the brain – they found that the people over the age of 70 who were more physically active had fewer damaged areas than those who did little exercise.
And they had more grey matter – the parts of the brain where the messages originate.
Experts already know that our brains tend to shrink as we age and that this shrinkage is linked to poorer memory and thinking.
And previous studies have shown that exercise helps reduce the risk of dementia and can slow down its onset.
But scientists are still baffled about why this is.
Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, delivering oxygen and nutrients to brain cells, which may be important.
Or it may be that as people’s brains shrink, they become less inclined to exercise.
Regardless of why, experts say the findings are good news because exercise is an easy thing to do to boost health.
Prof. James Goodwin, head of research at Age UK, the charity that provided the funding for the research, said: “This research re-emphasizes that it really is never too late to benefit from exercise, so whether it’s a brisk walk to the shops, gardening or competing in a fun run it is crucial that, those of us who can, get active as we grow older.”
A new research suggests that a diet rich in vitamins and fish may protect the brain from ageing while junk food has the opposite effect.
Elderly people with high blood levels of vitamins and omega 3 fatty acids had less brain shrinkage and better mental performance, a Neurology study found.
Trans fats found in fast foods were linked to lower scores in tests and more shrinkage typical of Alzheimer’s.
A UK medical charity has called for more work into diet and dementia risk.
The best current advice is to eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables, not smoke, take regular exercise and keep blood pressure and cholesterol in check, said Alzheimer’s Research UK.
The research looked at nutrients in blood, rather than relying on questionnaires to assess a person’s diet.
US experts analyzed blood samples from 104 healthy people with an average age of 87 who had few known risk factors for Alzheimer’s.
They found those who had more vitamin B, C, D and E in their blood performed better in tests of memory and thinking skills. People with high levels of omega 3 fatty acids – found mainly in fish – also had high scores. The poorest scores were found in people who had more trans fats in their blood.
Trans fats are common in processed foods, including cakes, biscuits and fried foods.
The researchers, from Oregon Health and Science University, Portland; Portland VA Medical Center; and Oregon State University, Corvallis, then carried out brain scans on 42 of the participants.
They found individuals with high levels of vitamins and omega 3 in their blood were more likely to have a large brain volume; while those with high levels of trans fat had a smaller total brain volume.
Study author Gene Bowman of Oregon Health and Science University said: “These results need to be confirmed, but obviously it is very exciting to think that people could potentially stop their brains from shrinking and keep them sharp by adjusting their diet.”
Co-author Maret Traber of the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University said: “The vitamins and nutrients you get from eating a wide range of fruits, vegetables and fish can be measured in blood biomarkers.
“I’m a firm believer these nutrients have strong potential to protect your brain and make it work better.”
Commenting on the study, Dr. Simon Ridley, head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:
“One strength of this research is that it looked at nutrients in people’s blood, rather than relying on answers to a questionnaire.
“It’s important to note that this study looked at a small group of people with few risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease, and did not investigate whether they went on to develop Alzheimer’s at a later stage.
“There is a clear need for conclusive evidence about the effect of diet on our risk of Alzheimer’s, which can only come from large-scale, long-term studies.”