Lifelong Exercise Boosts Memory at 50

By: Dr. Pascale Michelon

Physical exercise is key to fight many health problems, such as cardiovascular diseases. In the recent years it has also been shown to help fight against cognitive decline. A new study shows that lifelong exercise, starting as early as 11, contributes to better mental functions in mid-adulthood.

The study used data from 9,000 participants in the UK National Child Development Study. Researchers looked at global cognition, memory and executive functions scores assessed at the age of 50. They tested whether levels of self-reported exercise at the ages of 11, 16, 33, 42, 46 and 5o, could affect these scores. The different types of leisure-time physical activity reported included playing sport, running, swimming or working out in the gym.

Results showed that people who were physically active both as a child and adult had better cognitive functioning at 50 compared to those who were not. This was true even when potentially confounding factors (such as education or long-term illnesses) were taken into consideration.

Exercising one day a week as a child and as an adult was enough to provide benefits. However the largest benefits came from exercising 3 to 4 times a week. In the same way, intense exercise provided stronger benefits than moderate exercise.

These results show us two important things:

First, a little exercise is better than none. However, the more intense the exercise the better for the brain. So the best regimen for each one of us may be to start slowly at our level and try to built up on that, to reach more intense exercise levels.

Second, exercising early has an impact of later cognition. Although it is true that it is never too late to start exercising, it is now clear that starting early may be the best way to go. This shows that taking care of the brain is not something that we should start thinking about only late in our life. Educating our children about brain health and fitness, or at least helping them acquire the right habits, could be key for their lifelong productivity and well-being.

More about physical exercise and the brain:

References: Dregan, A., & Gulliford, M. C. (2013). Leisure-time physical activity over the life course and cognitive functioning in late mid-adult years: a cohort-based investigation.Psychological Medicine, pp1-12, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0033291713000305, Published online: 12 March 2013.

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