To reduce the risk of dementia in old age, a new study suggests that daily movement—even if it’s just doing chores like getting the mail or chopping onions—could be the best prevention tactic.
A new study has found that tasks as simple as sweeping the floors and making a meal chip away at dementia risk. And it’s not just those at risk of dementia who benefit from simple daily activities; researchers found that people who already have the brain lesions characteristic of dementia reap cognitive benefits when they clock more time performing daily activities.
“We measured levels of physical activity in study participants an average of two years prior to their deaths, and then examined their donated brain tissue after death, and found that a more active lifestyle may have a protective effect on the brain,” said Dr. Aron S. Buchman, lead author of the study paper and associate professor in the Department of Neurological Sciences at Rush University Medical Center. “People who moved more had better thinking and memory skills compared to those who were more sedentary and did not move much at all.”
Even amongst adults who had signs of Alzheimer’s in the brain—namely, beta-amyloid build-up—more movement seemed to help retain thinking and memory skills.
For the study, researchers assessed 454 older adults. Of those, 191 had dementia and 263 did not. For 20 years, every participant was given memory tests, thinking tests and physical exams. All agreed to donate their brains to science after their death.
Then, in the last few years before the patient passed away, the scientists gave participants a wearable activity monitor, much like a Fitbit or Apple Watch, that measured everything from small movements made while cooking dinner to the more obvious movement that occurred during exercise.
Those who moved more did better on the memory and thinking tests, scientists found.
Looking at the brains of the participants with Alzheimer’s after they died, researchers found that even amongst people with similar levels of disease in the brain, physical activity was linked to better scores on memory and thinking tests.
“Exercise is an inexpensive way to improve health, and our study shows it may have a protective effect on the brain,” said Buchman. “But it is important to note that our study does not show cause and effect. It may also be possible that as people lose memory and thinking skills, they reduce their physical activity. More studies are needed to determine if moving more is truly beneficial to the brain.”
It’s also unknown whether the participants who tracked more movement later in life also were more active early in life—it could have been that they were reaping the benefits of exercise over the course of a lifetime rather than just in their later years.
Still, research steadily shows that physical activity has benefits for the brain, even if patients have been largely inactive for most of their lives. A study late last year found that hospitalized patients participating in a five-day exercise routine saw improvement in quality of life and mental capacity. Other studies have shown that not only do people who exercise more seem to be at a lower risk for Alzheimer’s, but also that physical activity can actually help the brain clear beta-amyloid, the toxic protein that accumulates in the disease.