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Exercise May Protect the Brain From 'Silent Stokes'

Jogging, swimming, biking or other moderate to intense physical activity may protect the brain from "silent strokes," or small brain lesions that can lead to mental decline and increase the chances of a future stroke, a new study suggests. "These silent strokes are more significant than the name implies because they have been associated with an increased risk of falls and impaired mobility, memory problems and even dementia, as well as stroke," study author Dr. Joshua Z. Willey of Columbia University said in a news release from the American Academy of Neurology.

"Encouraging older people to take part in moderate to intense exercise may be an important strategy for keeping their brains healthy," he said.

For the study, Willey and his fellow researchers compiled information on the exercise habits of 1,238 people who had never had a stroke. About 43 percent said they did no regular exercise; 36 percent did light physical activity, such as golf or walking; and 21 percent said they did moderate to intense exercise, such as tennis, swimming, racquetball, hiking or jogging on a regular basis.

About six years later, researchers scanned the brains of the participants, who by then averaged 70 years old. The scans revealed that 16 percent had experienced silent strokes.

Those who reported engaging in moderate to intense activity were 40 percent less likely to have developed these small brain lesions than those who got no regular exercise, the study found. There was no difference in the likelihood of brain lesions between those who engaged in light exercise and those who got no regular physical activity.

"Of course, light exercise has many other beneficial effects, and these results should not discourage people from doing light exercise," Willey noted.

The findings were reported online June 8 in Neurology.

The study also found that the benefits of regular exercise on brain health did not apply to those who did not have health insurance or were on Medicaid. "It may be that the overall life difficulties for people with no insurance or on Medicaid lessens the protective effect of regular exercise," Willey said.

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 Last Modified 9/24/14