Exercising regularly in old age may protect against brain shrinkage better than engaging in mental or social activities, according to a new study.

“People in their seventies who participated in more physical exercise, including walking several times a week, had less brain shrinkage and other signs of aging in the brain than those who were less physically active,” said study author Alan J. Gow, Ph.D., with the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

“On the other hand, our study showed no real benefit to participating in mentally and socially stimulating activities on brain size, as seen on MRI scans, over the three-year time frame.”

Researchers looked at the medical records of 638 people from Scotland born in 1936. They were then given MRI scans at 73 years old, as well as questioned about their exercise habits.

Their exercise habits range from moving only in connection with necessary household chores to keeping fit with heavy exercise or participating in competitive sports several times per week.

They also reported their participation in social and mentally stimulating activities.

The study found that after three years, people who participated in more physical activity experienced less brain shrinkage than those who exercised minimally.

“Our results show that regularly exercising in old age is potentially important to protecting the brain as we age,” said Gow.

The study, supported by Research Into Aging, the Age UK-funded Disconnected Mind Project and the United Kingdom’s Medical Research Council, was published in Neurology.

Source: American Academy of Neurology