This digitized image made from a screen shot of a new iPad app, provided Sept. 24, 2012 by the National Museum of Health and Medicine Chicago, shows an image of brain tissue from renowned theoretical physicist Albert Einstein. (Uncredited/AP)
For older people, exercise, rather than socializing, may protect the brain

THE QUESTION The brain sometimes shrinks as people age, altering their memory and thinking abilities. Might physical or mental activities help prevent this shrinkage?

THIS STUDY analyzed data on 691 adults in their early 70s, including information on their exercise habits and participation in socially oriented or intellectually challenging activities. MRI brain scans showed less shrinkage in the brains among those who reported the most physical activity, compared with those who were the least physically active. Atrophy, or brain shrinkage, was greatest among physically inactive men. Participating in mentally and socially stimulating activities had no effect on brain shrinkage.

WHO MAY BE AFFECTED? Older adults. Forgetfulness is a normal part of aging, but serious memory loss and cognitive problems that affect day-to-day life are thought to be related more to brain atrophy.

CAVEATS Data on activities came from the participants’ responses on questionnaires. People who were in better health overall may have been more inclined to exercise and those in declining health may have withdrawn from physical activity, which could have affected the results.

FIND THIS STUDY Oct. 23 issue of Neurology.

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Linda Searing

The research described in Quick Study comes from credible, peer-reviewed journals. Nonetheless, conclusive evidence about a treatment's effectiveness is rarely found in a single study. Anyone considering changing or beginning treatment of any kind should consult with a physician.