Can Gardening, Other Leisure Activities Cultivate a Healthier Brain?

Megan Brooks

March 16, 2020

Engaging in regular leisure-time activities such as gardening, walking, and dancing is associated with a slowing of brain aging by 4 years, new research suggests.

Results of a neuroimaging study that included more than 1500 participants show that those who engaged in more physical activity had "larger brain volume, independent of other factors such as age, sex, and education" than those who were inactive, study investigator Yian Gu, PhD, Columbia University, New York City, told Medscape Medical News.

The study findings were released on March 5 ahead of the scheduled presentation in April at the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) 2020 Annual Meeting.

As reported by Medscape Medical News, that meeting has been canceled because of the global coronavirus pandemic.

Larger Brain Volume

It has previously been shown that leisure-time physical activity (LTPA) guards against cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer disease (AD). However, data on the association between LTPA and brain MRI measures remain scarce.

The investigators conducted a cross-sectional MRI analysis of 1557 older adults (average age, 75 years; 64% women) who were enrolled in the Washington/Hamilton Heights–Inwood Columbia Aging Project study, which was created to assess a community-based, multiethnic elderly cohort.

None of the participants had dementia, but 296 individuals had mild cognitive impairment (MCI), and 28% were APOE4 carriers.

The researchers divided the participants into three groups on the basis of LTPA level:

  • Those who were inactive;

  • Those who were somewhat active, engaging each week in roughly 2.5 hours of low-intensity physical activity, 1.5 hours of moderate physical activity, or 1 hour of high-intensity physical activity;

  • Those who were most active, engaging each week in 7 hours of low-intensity physical activity, 4 hours of moderate physical activity, or 2 hours of high-intensity physical activity.

MRI brain imaging results showed that for participants who were most active, total brain volume was significantly larger compared with those who were inactive.

After adjusting for age, sex, education, race/ethnicity, and APOE gene status, the average brain size for those who were most active was 883 cm3, vs 871 cm3 for those who were inactive. This was a 1.4% difference, which was equivalent to nearly 4 years of brain aging, the researchers note.

These results were similar after excluding the participants who had MCI.

In an earlier study, the investigators reported that both current and past physical activity are associated with lower risk of developing AD.

"We are excited that, in line with this, the current study shows that physical activity is also protective against brain volume loss," Gu said.

"Given the close relationship between brain atrophy and cognitive decline or dementia risk, it will be very interesting to formally test in future studies whether the protective role of physical activity on cognition or reducing dementia risk is indeed through slowing brain-undesirable changes, such as shrinkage or pathological changes," he added.

"Powerful Tools"

Commenting on the results for Medscape Medical News, Rebecca Edelmayer, PhD, director of scientific engagement for the Alzheimer’s Association, said that "evidence continues to build that healthy lifestyle habits are powerful tools, on their own and in combination with medicine," for reducing the risk for AD and other dementias and possibly for preventing them.

"This study suggests exercise habits may impact brain volume, a risk factor for cognitive problems, as we age," said Edelmayer, who was not involved with the research.

The current study also "reinforces the need for a large-scale, randomized, controlled clinical trial using a lifestyle intervention in a diverse population, which the Alzheimer’s Association is doing with the US POINTER study," she added.

The study was supported by the National Institute on Aging and the National Institutes of Health. Gu and Edelmayer have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

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