Walking away from dementia

By Natalie Taplin at Totton College

Elderly people who are more physically active are protected from cognitive decline. That’s the message from an American study led by Jennifer Weuve at the Harvard School of Public Health.

In 1986, part of the Nurses Health Study began tracking physical activity in more than 18,766 women aged 70-81, all of them former nurses. The women completed a baseline cognitive test over the telephone in 1995 and then again every two years until 2001.

Women who engaged in more leisure activity showed less cognitive decline and higher levels of cognitive function. Even those women who only walked a leisurely 90 minutes a week had better cognitive scores than those who walked less than 40 minutes a week.

It would appear that the differences in cognitive ability in women with higher vs. lower levels of activity, were similar to the differences in cognitive ability among women two to three years apart in age. So, on average, women who were 80 and highly active, had minds that functioned as if they were 77!

Overall, elderly women in the most active set had a 20% lower risk of cognitive impairment than those who were least active. “Physical activity may directly affect the brain”, the authors explained “potentially preserving neuronal structure and promoting the expansion of neural fibres, synapses and capillaries”.

Weuve, J., Kang, J.H., Manson, J.E., Breteler, M.M.B., Ware, J.H. & Grodstein, F. (2004). Physical Activity, Including Walking, and Cognitive Function in Older Women. Journal of the American Medical Association, 292, 1454-1460.