A Brainy Reason for Older People to Work Out

Exercise may help preserve motor skills in elderly patients with brain abnormalities

(RxWiki News) Aging brings many changes, but you don't have to take them sitting down. In fact, you probably shouldn't.

A new study found that exercise may improve motor function in elderly patients. It may even help patients who have evidence of brain decline that is related to motor impairment.

The brain changes as it ages. Many of these changes are not well understood. One type of change is called white matter hypersensitivity (WMH).

WMH is associated with motor impairment. Motor impairment is the inability to move muscles properly. It is a common problem in the elderly. This study showed that high levels of exercise may improve motor impairment, regardless of WMH.

"The authors [of the study] show that WMH was associated with global motor function, but that the harmful effects of WMH were lost in active people. The mechanisms for the protective effect of activity on the negative effects of WMH are not clear," wrote Richard Camicioli, MD, of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and Joe Verghese, MBBS, MS, of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, NY, in an editorial about the current study.

This study was led by Debra A. Fleischman, PhD, of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Dr. Fleischman and team looked at 167 older adults with an average age of 80. These adults were all in good health without signs of dementia.

WMH and motor function were measured in each patient and then compared to their physical activity levels.

In most patients, the level of motor impairment appeared related to the level of WMH. But, in patients who exercised, the exercise seemed to trump the WMH. In other words, physical activity may help patients overcome these problems in the brain and help them retain motor function.

"These results underscore the importance of efforts to encourage a more active lifestyle in older people to prevent movement problems, which is a major public health challenge," Dr. Fleischman said in a press release. "Physical activity may create a 'reserve' that protects motor abilities against the effects of age-related brain damage."

This study was published March 11 in the journal Neurology.

The National Institute on Aging, the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities, the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Rush Translational Science Consortium funded this research. Dr. Fleischman and team disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
March 11, 2015