Benefits of mental and physical activity on brain health may differ for men and women, study suggests

Taking steps to preserve thinking skills and memory through physical and mental activity has different benefits according to whether you are male or female, new research has indicated.

A study was carried out to examine how activities such as reading, playing games, going to classes and walking can impact on cognitive reserve – a buffer that develops when someone has strong thinking skills despite their brain showing signs of cognitive decline and dementia.

The research looked at the areas of thinking speed and memory, and found that they were affected differently depending on whether someone was make or female.

Study author Dr Judy Pa, from the University of California, said: “We found that greater physical activity was associated with greater thinking speed reserve in women, but not in men. Taking part in more mental activities was associated with greater thinking speed reserve for both men and women.”

In both men and women, increased physical activity was not linked to memory reserve.

Just under 760 people took part in the study. The group’s average age was 76 and included participants with no memory issues, some with mild impairment and a number of people with dementia.

The study involved brain scans and memory and thinking speed tests. To work out cognitive reserve, thinking test scores were held up against the changes in the brain linked to dementia.

Participants had to record any physical activity they undertook during the week and were asked about any mental activity they may have engaged in – reading, playing cards or bingo, or attending classes.

Dr Pa said that every extra mental activity that participants undertook reduced the years of aging in their thinking skills speed – 17 years for men and 10 years for women.

Dr Pa said: “As we have arguably few-to-no effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, prevention is crucial. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of treatment.

“To know that people could potentially improve their cognitive reserve by taking simple steps such as going to classes at the community centre, playing bingo with their friends or spending more time walking or gardening is very exciting.”

The team said on the basis of the research, women who doubled the amount of physical activity they do could reduce the aging in their thinking skills speed by 2.75 years.

The study has been published in the journal Neurology.

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