A recent article in the Daily Mail put me on edge. Failing to do exercise in middle age could shrink your brain, according to scientists. If the outpour of adrenalin were to count as exercise then I need not worry. I had plenty of that. I cannot recall doing much exercise in middle age, apart from lighting the candle at both ends in pursuit of enterprises, some of which were more of a challenge than others.
However, being open to serious research by scientists, I felt compelled to take heed of what they discovered. People in their 30s and 40s with poor levels of physical fitness were likely to have smaller brains two decades later on. Experts think their sedentary lifestyles effectively accelerated the aging process.
Brain shrinkage is a major factor in early cognitive decline, dementia and premature death. Researchers from Boston University’s School of Medicine in the US analysed medical data from nearly 1,500 people who were tracked over 20 years. The participants underwent fitness tests on treadmills in the late 1970s and early 1980s when they were aged between 31 and 49 to measure their heart rate. Two decades later, between 1998 and 2001, the volunteers were scrutinised in a series of MRI brain scans and neurological tests.
Study author Dr Nicole Spartano, whose results are published in medical journal Neurology, said: ‘We found a direct correlation in our studies between poor fitness and brain volume decades later which indicates accelerated brain ageing.’
It is well known that all brains shrink with age as a natural part of the ageing process. But the study results suggest that exercise levels determine the rate at which this happens. On average, the research found that the participants’ total brain volume shrank by roughly 0.2% a year. But those who were less fit in middle age saw their brain shrink faster. For every 20% reduction in fitness score below the average, the participant displayed an additional 0.2% brain shrinkage – the equivalent of an extra year’s ageing.
This is thought to be because physical fitness reduces blood pressure and makes processing of oxygen easier, so the brain is kept younger for longer. High blood pressure also increases the risk for heart disease and stroke. Dr Spartano added:’ While not yet studied on a large scale these results suggest that fitness in middle age may be particularly important for the many millions of people around the world who already have evidence of heart disease.’
The NHS suggests that adults do either 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week, but surveys reveal that around 40% of British people do no regular exercise at all. The findings are worrying for those like me, whose only exercise they do does not fall within the categories the NHS recommend.
Perhaps I should have a brain scan, lest I find myself going gaga before my time, even though I probably have left it too late for comfort?
However, I have an impetuous Brazilian aide from the Amazon who keeps me in good nick and babbles along to remind me of things she thinks I have forgotten. Perhaps this is a better medical alternative to brain therapy.