Harvard Women's Health Watch

In the journals: More studies find that regular exercise helps protect aging brains

If your New Year's resolve to become more physically active has started to flag, the findings of several studies may help renew your commitment. Research has already documented that higher levels of physical activity can help prevent or ameliorate many conditions that reduce function and hamper independence as we get older, including heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, and depression. Various types of exercise have also been linked with a reduced risk for dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

Now four studies, including two randomized trials, add further evidence that regular exercise may be the best thing we can do to stay not only physically healthy but also cognitively sharp into old age. One trial even suggests that exercise can help reverse early cognitive impairment in older women.

Three of the studies appeared in the Jan. 25, 2010, issue of Archives of Internal Medicine. In the first study, Harvard researchers analyzed health data from more than 13,000 women participating in the long-running Nurses' Health Study. They found that the women who reported getting the most exercise at age 60 were almost twice as likely to become successful survivors, compared with the most sedentary women. (A "successful survivor" was defined as living beyond age 70 without developing cognitive, physical, or mental health limitations or any of 10 major chronic conditions, including cancer and cardiovascular disease.) Successful survival was associated with a level of exercise equivalent to walking briskly five to six hours per week.

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