Physical activity with age may prevent loss of brain gray matter

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 - Patient and doctor
Photo courtesy of Rush University College of Nursing.

Physical activity sustains gray matter volume in the brain of older adults, according to recent findings from Rush University Medical Center researchers in Chicago.  

The study, published in The Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, showed that a physically active lifestyle may prevent a decrease in gray matter during late adulthood, ultimately sustaining muscle movement, memory retention and speech, among other physical and cognitive functions.  

"More gray matter is associated with better cognitive function, while decreases in gray matter are associated with Alzheimer's disease and other related dementias," said lead author Shannon Halloway, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at Rush University's College of Nursing, in a prepared statement from Rush University. "A healthy lifestyle, such as participating in lifestyle physical activity, is beneficial for brain health and may help lessen gray matter atrophy." 

Halloway utilized accelerometers and MRI to measure the physical activity of 262 older adults at an average age of 81 from Rush's Memory and Aging Project. No participants had a diagnosis or symptoms of any cognitive impairments, a history of brain surgery or brain abnormalities such as tumors, according to study methods.  

Participants were asked to wear an accelerometer for seven to 10 consecutive days to measure the frequency, time and intensity of their activity. Researchers then conducted MRIs of each participants brain to assess the amount of gray matter.  

Through comparing gray matter volumes taken from MRI results and accelerometer data, Halloway and her team found an association between participant's physical activity and gray matter volumes remained after assessing the following: age, gender, education levels, body mass index (BMI) and symptoms of depression, all of which can attribute to lowering levels of gray matter in the brain. 

"Our daily lifestyle physical activities are supportive of brain health, and adults of all ages should continue to try and increase lifestyle physical activity to gain these benefits," Halloway said in the statement. "Moving forward, our goal is to develop and test behavioral interventions that focus on lifestyle physical activity for older adults at increased risk for cognitive decline due to cardiovascular disease."