A new study by researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine has found that daily physical activity is effective in boosting brain function in middle-aged and older adults.
Their findings were published in the journal “JMIR mHealth and uHealth”.
The study added to the canon of research linking physical activity to cognitive performance, this time using 90 middle-aged and older subjects who wore accelerometers while physically active and performed mobile cognitive tests from their home.
“The future of lifestyle interventions really has to be at a distance,” said Raeanne Moore, PhD, associate professor in the department of psychiatry at UC San Diego School of Medicine and principal investigator of the study. “The pandemic has made that particularly clear.”
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The study found that on days when their physical activity increased, participants aged 50 to 74 performed better on an executive function task, and on days when their physical activity decreased, their cognitive performance also decreased.
“It was a very linear relationship,” Moore said. “We speculated that we would find that, but we couldn’t be sure because we weren’t telling people to increase their physical activity. They just did what they do every day.”
First author Zvinka Zlatar, PhD, a clinical psychologist at UC San Diego School of Medicine, added, “Future interventions, in which we ask people to increase their physical activity, will help us determine whether Daily changes in physical activity lead to daily gains in distance-measured cognition or vice versa.”
The correlation between physical activity and cognition remained when adjustments were made for various comorbidities, such as HIV status, age, gender, education, and race/ethnicity. But it is only valid for people who function in a dependent way – who rely on others to carry out the tasks of daily living, such as managing household activities or paying bills.
“For them, physical activity may have a greater benefit on day-to-day, real-life cognitive performance,” Moore said, a finding consistent with research on Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.
Although outside the scope of this study, Moore hypothesized that because functionally independent adults likely perform more cognitively stimulating and social activities, which are known to have positive effects on brain health, physical activity may have less impact on cognition.
Moore and Zlatar said their work has implications for the development of new digital health interventions to preserve brain health in aging.
“We don’t yet know if there’s a long-term cumulative effect to these small daily fluctuations in cognition,” Zlatar said. “This is something we plan to study next – to see if engaging in physical activity at different intensities over time, in unsupervised environments, can produce long-term improvements in brain health. and lasting behavior change.
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