Greater brain shrinkage is linked to problems with memory and thinking and the researchers say their findings suggest that exercise is potentially one important pathway to maintaining a healthy brain both in terms of size and reducing damage. The researchers also examined the brain’s white matter – the wiring that transmits messages round the brain. They found that people over 70 who were more physically active had fewer ‘damaged’ areas – visible as abnormal areas on scanning – in the white matter than those who did little exercise.
What is more, the researchers found that the over-70s taking regular exercise had more grey matter – the parts of the brain with nerve cell bodies. The Edinburgh team used MRI scans to measure the volume of brain tissue and the volume and health of the brain’s white matter in almost 700 people. They studied levels of physical activity which ranged from moving only for necessary housework to more strenuous forms of exercise such as keep-fit or taking part in competitive sports.
Dr Alan Gow explains why people who exercise in later life may better protect their brain from age-related changes than those who do not.