Harvard Women's Health Watch

Regular exercise may ward off cognitive decline in women with vascular disease

A study provides one more reason to carve out time every day for a brisk walk or similar exercise, especially if you have vascular disease or are at risk for developing it. Vascular disease, including heart disease and other conditions that affect blood vessels, increases the risk of age-related problems with memory and thinking, known as cognitive decline. Many studies indicate that exercise has a protective effect on cognitive function, but most have focused on generally healthy populations. The study suggests that a 72-year-old woman with vascular problems (or vascular risk factors) who exercises at least 30 minutes a day may be, on average, as cognitively sharp as a 65-year-old woman. Results were published in the Archives of Internal Medicine (July 25, 2011).

The study. The investigation involved 2,809 women ages 65 years and over who were part of a larger study, the Women's Antioxidant Cardiovascular Study. All of them had vascular disease or at least three risk factors for heart disease, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher. Researchers periodically asked the women about their exercise habits, including activities such as swimming, biking, and aerobic dance, as well as walking and stair climbing. They also conducted telephone interviews to assess participants' cognitive function using five tests, including memory tests of 10 words and a "category fluency" test that asked participants to name as many animals as possible in one minute. Most of the women (81%) completed at least three assessments at two-year intervals. The researchers classified the women into five groups, or quintiles, based on their reported activity levels an average of 3.5 years before their initial cognitive assessment.

The results. Women in the fourth and fifth quintiles, whose physical activity levels were equivalent to brisk walking at least 30 minutes a day, showed significantly less cognitive decline than those in the lowest (least active) quintile. In terms of brain function, the apparent benefit associated with exercising at higher levels was equivalent to being five to seven years younger, according to the authors.

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