The study unveiled that participants most physically active did not report a reduction in their movement abilities, even when magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) clearly indicated they had high levels of brain damage due to old age.
The findings were published in journal Neurology.
“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,” says study author Debra A. Fleischman, of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, IL.
Brains of older people frequently contain white matter hyperintensities, small areas of the brain that have been associated with impaired motor functioning, including difficulty walking.
As research indicated, physical activity could alter the impact such brain damage has on mobility in old age – the working hypothesis researchers are basing their study on.
Studies in humans and animals already suggested the important role of physical activity on brain health in aging could be associated to an enhanced blood flow, production of new blood vessels, and improved maintenance of circulatory system.
In the study, 167 participants aged 80 on average, were asked to wear movement monitors to track the level and intensity of their activity over an 11 day period. Level of each participant’s movement was tested, and MRI scans were used to determine the volume of white matter hyperintensities in their brains.
Participants in the top 10% of physical activity level had an exercise level equivalent for an added 1.5 hours a day at around 4km/h compared to participants at 50th percentile.
“To determine whether physical activity is causally related to improved mobility would require a randomized study,” the study concluds. “Given the high prevalence of WMH [white matter hyperintensities] even in middle-aged individuals, interventions that seek to stabilize or improve gait should be performed.”