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Moderate to intense exercise may protect the brain

June 9, 2011

Researchers at Columbia University have found that older people who regularly exercise at a moderate to intense level may be less likely to develop the small brain lesions (infarcts) sometimes referred to as “silent strokes.”

The researchers worked with a sample of 1,238 people who had never had a stroke. Participants completed a questionnaire about how often and how intensely they exercised at the beginning of the study and then had MRI scans of their brains an average of six years later, when they were an average of 70 years old.

A total of 43 percent of the participants reported that they had no regular exercise; 36 percent engaged in regular light exercise, such as golf, walking, bowling or dancing; and 21 percent engaged in regular moderate to intense exercise, such as hiking, tennis, swimming, biking, jogging or racquetball.

The brain scans showed that 197 of the participants, or 16 percent, had small infarcts. People who engaged in moderate to intense exercise were 40 percent less likely to have the silent strokes than people who did no regular exercise. The results remained the same after the researchers took into account other vascular risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking.

There was no difference between those who engaged in light exercise and those who did not exercise.

Ref.: J. Z. Willey, et al., Lower prevalence of silent brain infarcts in the physically active: The Northern Manhattan Study, Neurology, 2011; [DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e31821f4472]

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