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January 18, 2019

Study examining fitness tracker data links activity in older adults to lower dementia risk

But we still don't know how much activity is 'enough'

Senior Health Mental Health
fitness tracker unsplash FitNish Media/Unsplash

Everyone knows that it's important to stay active because, well, that's what we're "supposed" to do to live a long, healthy life. And while that is pretty much common knowledge, what's less certain is whether that activity actually improves the health of seniors.

But a new study based on data from fitness trackers has found that exercise in older adults is linked to a lower risk of developing dementia.

A study published this week in Neurology outlines the findings of researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. "Rather than just talking about all the things that go wrong in older people, there is a developing literature there are resilience factors that can really make a difference," lead author Dr. Aron Buchman says.

RELATED READ: Study suggests Alzheimer's develops differently in African-Americans

Buchman and his colleagues examined 454 people, some who had been taking annual memory tests for about 20 years and had agreed to donate their brains for research after death. This allowed the researchers to check for brain changes linked to dementia and Alzheimer's disease, which can only be diagnosed definitively during an autopsy, Buzzfeed News reports. 

To measure daily activity, participants wore activity trackers for about seven days. Cognitive functions were measured by 19 tests administered annually. The researchers also measured motor skills.

Overall, 191 had dementia and 263 did not, Buzzfeed notes.

After their death, each participant’s brain was examined for 10 common age-related brain changes, including Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers found that 85 percent of the participants showed evidence of two or more patterns of brain deterioration linked to the disease.

And while one might anticipate that the brains of the active participants had fewer age-related changes than people with less activity, that's not what the researchers found, Everyday Health reported:

“When we actually looked at the analysis, the benefit was not at all related to the amount of pathology we found in their brain,” Buchman says, meaning people who had been more active still had signs of brain deterioration that would typically be associated with dementia, but they actually had less cognitive decline than those who had not been active.

Buchman told Buzzfeed News that above all, movement no matter what may be, is what's crucial:

"The devices can’t tell the difference between cutting onions and sewing and sweeping the floor and going to the gym. So it seems like a generic total effect that anything you can do — even if you can’t get out the front door to go to the gym because you are limited at home — if you increase your level of activity it seems to be better for you."

That said, unfortunately the researchers can't pinpoint what constitutes "enough" activity to fend off dementia.

It’s worth noting that the study isn’t the first one to link physical activity to better outcomes in relation to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, but more research is needed to determine if moving more is truly beneficial, if not preventive, for the brain.

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