Midlife physical activity is associated with better cognition in old age

A long-term follow-up study has shown that midlife, moderately vigorous physical activity is associated with better cognition at old age.

A long-term follow-up study of 3050 twins from the Finnish Twin Cohort has shown that midlife, moderately vigorous physical activity is associated with better cognition at old age. The association was statistically independent of midlife hypertension, smoking, education level, sex, obesity and binge drinking. “This suggests that the beneficial influence of physical activity on the brain and cognition is not solely based on decreasing vascular risk factors”, says researcher Paula Iso-Markku from the University of Helsinki.

Increasing the volume of physical activity was not, however, associated with increased memory-protecting benefits. Instead, quite a moderate amount of physical activity was found to be sufficient for memory-protecting benefits, and only the most inactive group of twins stood out with a significantly higher risk for cognitive impairment.

In the study there was a comparison later in life between the twins where one of them was more physically active than the other. It was found that a moderate amount of physical activity was observed to be sufficient for the memory-protecting benefits. There was a significantly increased risk for cognitive impairment in only the most inactive group of twins.

Professor Urho Kujala from the University of Jyväskylä says that this study shows that overall there is an association between moderately vigorous physical activity and better cognition after about 25 years. Professor Kujala has pointed out that this finding is in support of earlier animal model studies, which have demonstrsated that physical activity increases the amount of growth factors which are in the brain while also improving synaptic plasticity.

The prevalence of dementia has increased with aging populations both in Finland and globally. Although the incidence of dementia seems to have decreased in less senior generations, the total prevalence of dementia is still expected to rise. No cure for dementia exists, but during the last decade research has produced an abundance of new information on dementia prevention. The traditional vascular risk factors (elevated blood pressure, hypercholesterolemia, obesity, diabetes and lack of exercise) have also been associated with dementia risk.

"However, few long-term, high-quality, follow-up studies on physical activity and cognition have been published, and it has remained unclear what type and amount of exercise is needed to safeguard cognition" said Urho Kujala.

The study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, was conducted by scientists at the universities of Helsinki, Jyväskylä and Turku. The twins provided information on physical activity through questionnaire surveys from 1975 and 1981 (mean age in 1981: 49 years), while cognition was assessed by validated telephone interviews conducted between 1999 and 2015.

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