Moderate to Intense Exercise Protects the Brain in the Elderly

Elderly individuals who routinely exercise at a moderate to intense level may be less likely to suffer from "silent strokes".

Recent research has shown that elderly individuals who routinely exercise at a moderate to intense level may be less likely to develop infarcts, or minute brain lesions often referred to as "silent strokes," which are the primary signals of cerebrovascular disease.

"These 'silent strokes' are more significant than the name implies, because they have been associated with an increased risk of falls and impaired mobility, memory problems and even dementia, as well as stroke," said study author Joshua Z. Willey, MD, MS, of Columbia University in New York and a member of the American Academy of Neurology. "Encouraging older people to take part in moderate to intense exercise may be an important strategy for keeping their brains healthy."

The researchers studied 1,238 people who had never experienced a stroke. Participants completed a survey concerning the frequency and intensity of their exercise regiment at the start of the study; then, roughly six years later, the participants had MRI scans of their brains, when they were an average age of seventy years old.

At the start of the study, 43% of the participants reported that they had no regular exercise; 36% participants said they engaged in regular light exercise, such as golf, walking, bowling or dancing; and 21% reportedly engaged in regular moderate to intense exercise, such as hiking, tennis, swimming, biking, or jogging.

The brain scans revealed that 197 of the participants—16%—had the small brain lesions known as “silent strokes”.

Researchers discovered that individuals who reported engaging in moderate to intense exercise were 40% less likely to have the lesions than people who did no regular exercise. The results remained the same after the researchers took into account other vascular risk factors, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking.

There was no difference found between elders who engaged in light exercise and people who did not exercise.

"Of course, light exercise has many other beneficial effects, and these results should not discourage people from doing light exercise," Willey said.

The study also demonstrated that the benefit of moderate to intense exercise on brain health was not perceptible for people with Medicaid or no health insurance. Participants who exercised regularly at a moderate to intense level who had Medicaid or no health insurance were no less likely to suffer silent infarcts than individuals who did no regular exercise.

"It may be that the overall life difficulties for people with no insurance or on Medicaid lessens the protective effect of regular exercise," Willey said.

The study was published today in the online issue of Neurology