Exercise to Protect your Brain from Silent Strokes

By: Dr. Pascale Michelon

Silent strokes increase both the chances of a future major stroke and the risks of cognitive decline and dementia. It is thus good to learn that physical exercise may help protect the brain from silent strokes.

What is a silent stroke?
A silent stroke is a stroke that does not lead to any outward symptoms. Most people experiencing a silent stroke are not aware of what is going on. Even though symptoms are not showing, the damage to the brain is real. The blood supply to a tiny part of the brain is disrupted, resulting in a lesion, that is permanent damage to the brain cells (neurons) in this area.

Physical exercise and silent strokes
As discussed in a previous post elsewhere, being physically active is associated with better cognitive performance in general.
A recent study shows that physical exercise is also associated with lower risks of silent strokes. 1,238 clinically stroke-free adults (mean age 70 ± 9 years) participated in the study. About 43% reported that they did no regular exercise, 36% that they did light physical activity (such as golf or walking); and 21% reported moderate to intense exercise (such as tennis, swimming, racquetball, hiking or jogging regularly).
Six years later, researchers scanned the brains of the participants. The scans showed that 16% had experienced silent strokes. Participants who reported engaging in moderate to intense activity were 40%  less likely to have experienced silent strokes than those who got no regular exercise. Risks of experiencing silent strokes were not different between those who engaged in light exercise and those who did no regular exercise.

How much should I exercise?
Physical exercise should be considered as one of the main pillars of brain health along with a balance diet, mental stimulation and challenge and stress management.
Guidelines indicate that one should exercise at least 3 days a week for at least 30 minutes each time. Aerobic exercise may be the best type of exercise, although, strength training has also been linked to better cognitive health in a few studies. It is never too late (or too early) to start exercising. Seems worth the sweat!

References:
Willey, Moon, Paik, et al. (2011). Lower prevalence of silent brain infarcts in the physically active: The Northern Manhattan Study. Neurology, 76:2112-2118.

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