University of Melbourne Magazine

Exercise key to avoiding decline

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    Regular exercise in middle age is the best lifestyle change a person can make to prevent cognitive decline in the later years, a landmark 20-year study has found.

    University researchers followed 387 Australian women from the Women’s Healthy Ageing Project for two decades.

    The women were aged from 45 to 55 when the study began in 1992.

    The research team noted their lifestyle factors, including exercise and diet, education, marital and employment status, number of children, mood, physical activity and smoking.

    The women’s hormone levels, cholesterol, height, weight, Body Mass Index and blood pressure were recorded 11 times throughout the study. Hormone replacement therapy was also factored in.

    When measuring memory loss over 20 years, frequent physical activity, normal blood pressure and high good cholesterol were all strongly associated with better recall.

    Study author Associate Professor Cassandra Szoeke (BSc(Hons) 1995, PhD 2006), who leads the Women’s Healthy Ageing Project, says once dementia occurs, it is irreversible.

    Regular exercise of any type, from walking the dog to mountain climbing, emerged as the number one protective factor against memory loss.

    Associate Professor Szoeke says the best effects came from cumulative exercise, that is, how much you do and how often over the course of your life.

    The study was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Alzheimer’s Association.