Is Physical Exercise Better Than Mental Activity for Keeping Your Cognitive Edge?

Many people believe that doing crossword puzzles can keep the brain sharp, and even prevent Alzheimer’s. That may be well and good, but researchers are finding that regular physical exercise in old age may protect the brain from age-related decline better than engaging in more intellectual pursuits.

Researchers examined the medical records of 638 people from Scotland born in 1936. At age 70, the participants filled out questionnaires detailing their exercise habits as well as how often they engaged in stimulating mental and social activities. When they turned 73, the scientists took MRIs of their brains and matched their size, as well as any changes in the volume of white matter, which makes up the web of nerves that connect various brain regions, to the volunteers’ questionnaire answers.

The participants reported a range of physical activity, from household chores to heavy exercise or playing competitive sports several times a week. Over the three years, those who exercised the most had the largest brains, and showed the least shrinkage in white matter compared to those who were the least active. The 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 timeframe.

Additionally, four studies presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Vancouver also found that elderly adults who exercised regularly, including taking walks, working with light weights and aerobic training, had fewer “senior moments” and improved memory than those who were more sedentary.

Dr. Jane Stewart at Optiminds recommends a combination of physical and mental activity for optimal cognitive health. Optiminds specializes in helping people of all ages improve their cognitive skills. For more information on Optiminds programs, contact Dr. Jane Stewart at (248) 496-0150 or email her at: And visit the Optiminds website at:


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