AGING
July 1, 2009

Fit Body, Sharp Mind

Being physically fit helps you stay mentally sharp, a new study has found. People who exercised at least once a week were more likely to avoid...
According to a new study in this month's Neurology, seniors who are physically fit and have at least a high school education are less likely to suffer cognitive decline with age. The research team at the University of California, San Francisco followed 2,500 participants in their 70s and analyzed their cognitive skills at several different points over the next eight years.

Almost a third of the participants showed no decline at all, however, and a very small number actually showed cognitive improvement.

By the end of the study, 16% of the participants showed major cognitive decline and 53% showed minor cognitive decline. Almost a third of the participants showed no decline at all, however, and a very small number actually showed cognitive improvement.

The team found that several variables were linked to staying mentally fit with age. Participants who exercised at least once a week were 30% more likely to stay sharp than those who didn't exercise this much. Interestingly, individuals with at least a high school education were also about three times more likely to maintain cognitive health than those with less education, and those with at least a ninth-grade literacy level were about five times more likely to maintain cognitive function.

Lifestyle had much to do with keeping up cognitive function, too. Non-smokers were twice as likely to maintain it, and people who volunteered or continued to work were about 24% more likely to avoid mental decline.

"The take-home message from the study is, you can maintain your cognitive function in late life," said study author Alexandra Fiocco. "People are afraid they will experience cognitive decline as they age. But not everyone declines."

Fiocco also points out that not a lot of research has focused on what one should do to stay mentally sharp: "To this day, the majority of past research has focused on factors that put people at greater risk to lose their cognitive skills over time, but much less is known about what factors help people maintain their skills."

The good news is that most of the variables addressed in the study are lifestyle-related — exercising, not smoking, and working/volunteering, and so are all largely within a person's control. All may help keep up cognitive function well into one's golden years.
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