Exercise good for the body and mind

Two studies published in the Archives of Internal Medicine demonstrate that cardiovascular exercise may not only help skim inches off your waistline, but it may also stave off the onset of cognitive decline as you age. Led by Dr. Marie-Noel Vercambre of the Foundation of Public Health at the Mutuelle Generale de l Education Nationale in Paris, France, the first study recruited nearly 3,000 women (age 65 or older) with histories of vascular disease, or those who had at least three coronary risk factors, from the Women s Antioxidant Cardiovascular Study (WACS) between 1995 and 1996. At baseline and every two years thereafter, the women s recreational physical activity was assessed while their cognitive acuity was measured using the Telephone Interview of Cognitive Status (TICS) survey. This test was given three more times over the next five and a half years. Compared to participants in the bottom fifth of total physical activity, those with higher levels of exercise had lower rates of cognitive decline. Even regularly walking for as little as 30 minutes per day was associated with better mental function, the researchers found.

The second study used a rigorously controlled measure of exercise output active energy expenditure (AEE) among its 197 male and female participants, who had an average age of 75 and lacked any cognitive or mobility impairments when they were recruited between 1998 and 1999. Dr. Laura E. Middleton of the Heart and Stroke Foundation Centre for Stroke Recovery in Toronto, Ontario and her colleagues used the Modified Mini-Mental State Examination to measure the participants mental function at baseline and two or five years later. After adjusting for several confounding variables, researchers found that older adults in the highest third of AEE had a lower incident risk of cognitive impairment compared to those in the lowest third.

Cumulatively, these studies demonstrate that physical exercise, which is a modifiable lifestyle factor, can protect to some extent against cognitive decline, says ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross. And we should be encouraging it even more among populations of older people who are at a greater risk of dementia and Alzheimer s.

In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Eric B. Larson of the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle, Washington, says that, in addition to limited physical activity, other modifiable risk factors, such as midlife hypertension and smoking, are also associated with vascular degenerative processes and late-life dementia, and should therefore be avoided.