Healthy body, healthy mind: regular exercise could keep your brain healthy for longer, study suggests

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Scientists at King’s College London say they have found what they describe as a “striking protective relationship” between strong leg muscles in women – a good indicator of physical fitness - and a reduction in natural brain ageing.

The study, published in the journal Gerontology, involved tracking 162 pairs of female twins aged between 43 and 73 at the start of the study. Measurements were taken relating to leg muscle strength, brain performance and brain structure in 1999, which were compared to measurements from the same women taken again a decade later.

The scientists examined the sample of identical twins because they share the same genes meaning that any differences in health over time can be linked to a variety of environmental factors, including lifestyle and physical fitness.

They noted a strong correlation between greater leg strength and cognition maintenance, with mental abilities such as thinking, learning and memory typically maintained in those women who had stronger legs at the start of the study. When it came to physical brain structure, these women were also found to have retained more nerve cells in the brain.

The researchers concluded that regular exercise may release chemicals in the body which could be providing a boost to the ageing brain, slowing down the ageing process.

“Simple lifestyle changes”

Lead researcher Dr Claire Steves, a lecturer in twin research at King’s College, says: "When it came to cognitive ageing, leg strength was the strongest factor that had an impact in our study.

She adds: "Everyone wants to know how best to keep their brain fit as they age. Identical twins are a useful comparison, as they share many factors, such as genetics and early life, which we can't change in adulthood.

"It's compelling to see such differences in cognition and brain structure in identical twins, who had different leg power 10 years before. It suggests that simple lifestyle changes to boost our physical activity may help to keep us both mentally and physically healthy."

Reduced risk of dementia?

Dr Doug Brown, Director of research at The Alzheimer’s Society, says: "This study adds to the growing evidence that physical activity can help you to look after your brain as well as your body, however we still don't fully understand how this relationship works and how we can maximise the benefit.

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"By identifying which aspects of fitness and physical activity are important for the brain's health, we hope to be able to offer more specific advice on how you can reduce the risk of dementia."

"And we have yet to see if the improvements in memory tests actually translate into a reduced risk of dementia."

The study is thought to be the first to identify a possible causal link between muscle force and brain performance among a healthy population.


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