Harvard Mental Health Letter

In Brief: More evidence that regular exercise is good for the brain

In Brief

More evidence that regular exercise is good for the brain

Although many studies indicate that exercise has a protective effect on cognitive function, most have focused on generally healthy populations. One study instead recruited women with heart disease (who are at increased risk of cognitive decline). The results suggest that a 72-year-old woman with heart disease (or at risk for it) who exercises at least 30 minutes a day may be, on average, as cognitively sharp as a 65-year-old woman.

The investigation involved 2,809 women ages 65 and over who were participating in the Women's Antioxidant Cardiovascular Study. All of them already had heart disease or at least three risk factors for developing it, 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. 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.

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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