Think faster as you age by boosting exercise and mental activity, study finds

By Sandee LaMotte, CNN

Keeping your body and brain fit has long been a prescription for better mental health as you age. A new study has now found that women’s mental processing speed may actually benefit more than men from a boost in exercise, such as brisk walking or cycling for at least 15 minutes a week.

A delay in the processing speed of the brain is one of the main aspects of cognitive aging. Being able to think faster helps you plan, solve problems, stay focused on tasks, and strike up conversations with others easily.

“We found that greater physical activity was associated with greater reserve thinking speed in women, but not in men,” said study author Judy Pa, a professor of neuroscience at the University. University of California San Diego, School of Medicine, in a statement.

Mental processing speed in both sexes also benefited from cognitive activities such as playing card games and reading, according to the study, that Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, published on Wednesday.

“Participating in more mental activities was associated with a greater reserve of thinking speed for both men and women,” said Pa, co-director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study at UC San Diego.

However, any positive association between cognitive activities and memory reserve only applies to women, according to the study.

“Any woman reading this story can feel empowered to take control of her brain health today by staying physically active and cognitively engaged,” said Dr. Richard Isaacson, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Prevention Clinic at Center for Brain Health at Schmidt College at Florida Atlantic University. of Medicine. He did not participate in the study.

“In this study, a two-fold increase in physical activity was equivalent to approximately 2.75 years less aging processing speed in women,” Isaacson said. “Furthermore, each additional cognitive activity corresponded to 13 years less aging processing speed on average between women and men.”

Processing speed, no memory

The study asked 758 people with an average age of 76 about their weekly physical and mental activities. Participants were awarded points for each of three categories of cognitive engagement: taking courses on various topics; playing cards, games or bingo; and read magazines, newspapers or books.

Each person in the study underwent a brain scan and took thinking speed and memory tests: some people showed signs of cognitive impairment and dementia while others had no problems thinking or of memory. The researchers then compared those test results with brain scans of the hippocampus, a part of the brain associated with dementia.

Each additional mental activity, such as playing cards or reading, reduces that person’s aging mental processing speed by an average of 13 years — 17 years in men and 10 years in women, the study found.

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

However, the study did not find a significant impact on memory. For example, greater physical activity was not associated with additional memory storage in either men or women. Why? It’s a complicated question, said Isaacson, who is also a trustee of the McKnight Brain Research Foundation, which focuses on research and education on cognitive aging.

“Was the memory test used sensitive enough to detect a change? Were study participants exercising enough to really move the needle? asked Isaacson.

“In our work, we’ve found that some people have to really engage with their exercise program to demonstrate effects in the memory domain,” he said. “For example, people with one or more copies of the APOE4 genetic variant must regularly participate in more intense cardiovascular exercise programs, such as high-intensity interval training, to show positive effects.”

A genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease

People who carry at least one copy of a gene called APOE4 have a greater risk to develop the beta-amyloid plaques and tau tangles characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease as they age.

Women in the new study carrying an APOE4 gene did not see the same benefits for their cognitive reserve of additional physical and mental activities.

“The most interesting aspect of the study is that APOE4 differentiates women from men,” said Rudy Tanzi, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit. at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

“It is possible that APOE4 increases amyloid load in women more than in men. Or, perhaps, once amyloid builds up, it leads to a rapid cascade of pathology and neurodegeneration in women compared to men,” said Tanzi, who was not involved in the study. .

“The study also implies that women who carry the APOE4 (variant of the gene) risk for Alzheimer’s disease may need to be more diligent about adopting a more brain-healthy lifestyle.” he added.

The study had limitations: participants said physical and mental activity, so people may not remember it correctly. The study also didn’t control for other factors, such as education, that impact how a person’s brain ages.

“Although exercise and mental engagement shined in this study, a holistic approach to reducing Alzheimer’s risk factors is the best recipe for success,” Isaacson said.

“Any prevention plan should also include regular follow-up with a primary care physician, managing vascular risk factors like blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol, avoiding smoking, minimizing alcohol consumption, prioritizing sleep, manage stress and follow a Mediterranean style dietamong many other suggestions,” he said.

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