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Physical activity may help elderly stay sharp

Older adults who regularly engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity may have better cognitive performance, a new study has found.

Physically fit people tend to have larger brain volumes and more intact white matter than their less-fit peers.

The new study has found that older adults who are physically active have more variable brain activity at rest than those who are not. This variability is associated with better cognitive performance, researchers said.

“We looked at 100 adults between the ages of 60 and 80, and we used accelerometers to objectively measure their physical activity over a week,” said Agnieszka Burzynska, of the University of Illinois, who led the study with Art Kramer, director of Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology in US.

The researchers also used functional MRI to observe how blood oxygen levels changed in the brain over time, reflecting each participant’s brain activity at rest.

They evaluated the microscopic integrity of each person’s white-matter fibres, which carry nerve impulses and interconnect the brain.

“We found that spontaneous brain activity showed more moment-to-moment fluctuations in the more-active adults,” said Burzynska, who now is a professor at Colorado State University.

“In a previous study, we showed that in some of the same regions of the brain, those people who have higher brain variability also performed better on complex cognitive tasks, especially on intelligence tasks and memory,” said Burzynska.

The researchers also found that, on average, older adults who were more active had better white-matter structure than their less-active peers.

“Our study, when viewed in the context of previous studies that have examined behavioural variability in cognitive tasks, suggests that more-fit older adults are more flexible, both cognitively and in terms of brain function, than their less-fit peers,” Kramer said.

The new research highlights yet another way to assess brain health in ageing, Burzynska said.

“We want to know how the brain relates to the body, and how physical health influences mental and brain health in ageing,” she said.

“Here, instead of a structural measure, we are taking a functional measure of brain health. And we are finding that tracking changes in blood-oxygenation levels over time is useful for predicting cognitive functioning and physical health in ageing,” said Burzynska.

The study was published in the journal PLOS One.