Can Exercise Prevent Mental Decline?

Medically Reviewed

Q. My 70-year-old husband is in good health overall, but I am concerned that he is not physically active. Is there any research showing that physical activity protects against mental decline as well as its other well-known benefits?

A. Exercise is protective. For example, a study published in May 2016 in Neurology reported that older people who engage in moderate to heavy exercise experience far less cognitive decline—equal to what is associated with 10 years of normal aging—than those who get little or no exercise.

The 876 participants in this study, all older than 50, underwent a standard neuropsychological examination, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) for cerebrovascular disease, which was repeated about 5 years later. Investigators also collected information about vascular risk factors and participants’ exercise habits.

At the end of the study period, participants who reported no or light physical activity (whether or not MRI showed they had a brain injury) had a greater decline in how quickly they could perform simple tasks than those who reported moderate to heavy physical activity.

Among participants who were cognitively normal at baseline, low physical activity also was associated with a greater decline in memories of personal experiences (known as episodic memory).

So keep on urging your husband to get moving!