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Worried about the cognitive decline that comes with aging? Get moving. The results of a new study published in Neurology show that people who are physically active show fewer signs of brain shrinkage and other cognitive deterioration compared with their more sedentary counterparts.

Chalk it up as yet another reason to stay active.

The study included nearly 700 people who were born in 1936 and were part of a group called the Lothian Birth Cohort from Scotland. The cohort was gleaned from a population that took intelligence and mental-health tests in 1947—normal protocol for all 11-year-olds in Scotland at the time. The cohort underwent the same tests at age 70 and responded to questionnaires about the types and frequency of leisure and physical activity. At age 73, the 100 participants underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans.

Brains typically shrink with age—but researchers found that individuals who reported the higher levels of physical activity had less brain shrinkage. In contrast, leisure activities—such as visiting family and friends, playing games, learning a new language, or reading—appeared to have no effect on the aging brain.

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The researchers concluded that people who exercise have better brain health—but the reasons for this are unclear. It’s one of those chicken-and-egg arguments—is a healthier brain the result of physical activity or does a healthier brain lead to more physical activity? We do know that exercise increases circulation and delivers more oxygen to the brain, but whether that is the reason behind the association is still unclear.

Research will be ongoing to study the connection between exercise and brain health. The members of the Lothian Birth Cohort are slated to undergo another brain scan at age 76. The scans will be compared to further evaluate the link between exercise and brain health.

In the meantime, it’s safe to say—put down the crossword puzzle and get moving.


Gow AJ, Bastin ME, Maniega SM, et al. Neuroprotective lifestyles and the aging brain: Activity, atrophy, and white matter integrity. Neurology. 2012; 79(17): 1802-1808.