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Physical activity preserves thinking skills among women

Physical and mental activity can help preserve thinking skills and delay dementia, but these benefits may vary for men and women, according to a new study. 

The study looked at the effects of physical and mental activities, such as reading or playing card games, on cognitive reserve in the areas of thinking speed and memory.

“We found that greater physical activity was associated with greater thinking speed reserve in women, but not in men,” said study author Judy Pa.  “Taking part in more mental activities was associated with greater thinking speed reserve for both men and women.”

Interestingly, greater physical activity was not associated with memory reserve in either men or women.

The research was focused on 758 people with an average age of 76. Some of the individuals had no thinking or memory problems, some had mild cognitive impairment, and some had dementia. 

Brain scans were taken, and the participants underwent thinking speed and memory tests. To calculate cognitive reserve, test scores were compared against changes in the brain associated with dementia, such as the total volume of the hippocampus, a key brain region impacted by Alzheimer’s disease.

The participants were asked about their weekly physical activity. For mental activity, they were asked whether they read magazines, newspapers or books, went to classes, and played cards, games or bingo over the last 13 months. They were given one point for each type of activity, for a maximum of three points. On average, the individuals scored 1.4 points for mental activity. 

For physical activity, participants took part in at least 15 minutes per week of activities that elevate heart rates such as brisk walking and biking.

Pa said that each additional mental activity corresponded to 13 fewer years of aging in their processing speed -17 years among men and 10 years among women.

“As we have arguably few-to-no effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, prevention is crucial. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of treatment,” Pa said. “To know that people could potentially improve their cognitive reserve by taking simple steps such as going to classes at the community center, playing bingo with their friends or spending more time walking or gardening is very exciting.”

In women, a doubling of the amount of physical activity would be equivalent to an estimated 2.75 fewer years of aging when it comes to processing speed in their thinking skills.

The researchers also looked at whether the relationship between physical and mental activities and cognitive reserve was affected by the gene that carries the strongest risk for Alzheimer’s, called APOE e4. For women, having the gene lessens the effects of the beneficial relationship between physical and mental activities and cognitive reserve.

The study does not prove that physical and mental activities help improve cognitive reserve. It only shows an association. Also, structural and societal factors that affect cognitive reserve, such as education, were not measured in the study.

The research was supported by the National Institute on Aging and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.

Learn more about brain health at, home of the American Academy of Neurology’s free patient and caregiver magazine focused on the intersection of neurologic disease and brain health. 

By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

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