Active youth linked to lower risk for cognitive decline

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A new study analyzing physical activity at different phases of life for more than 9,000 elderly women finds that routine exercise at any age was associated with a reduced risk for cognitive decline or dementia, but that regular physical activity during teenage years was most strongly linked to a lower risk for mental deterioration later in life. Despite recent reports suggesting a lack of rigorous science indicating that lifestyle factors such as diet or exercise can diminish Alzheimer’s risk, the findings, published today in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society add to the prevailing notion in the medical community that regular exercise may diminish the risk for cognitive decline — or at the very least, can improve vascular health and can’t hurt.

For this latest investigation, researchers from Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center in Canada analyzed exercise habits of 9,344 women from four U.S. states during their teenage years, 30s, 50s, and twilight years. They found that, after controlling for a range of potential confounding factors — education, marital status, diabetes, hypertension, weight, depression, and age — there remained a strong correlation between teen physical activity and reduced risk for cognitive impairment late in life.

The researchers are careful to point out that, though the findings underscore the importance of being physically active from a young age, in the study population, women who began routine exercise in their 30s and 50s saw lower risk for cognitive impairment as they aged compared with those who were consistently inactive. As Laura Middleton, the study’s lead author, explained in a statement about the findings:

“To minimize the risk of dementia, physical activity should be encouraged from early life. Not to be without hope, people who were inactive at teenage can reduce their risk of cognitive impairment by becoming active in later life.”

And while dementia researchers work toward more definitive science about what may help lower the risk for cognitive decline later in life, it’s worth noting that there are plenty of other health benefits of eating well and staying physically active.

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