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    Physically active seniors stayed mentally sharper than their sedentary peers

    By Amy Norton

    HealthDay Reporter

    WEDNESDAY, March 23, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- Older adults who exercise regularly could buy an extra decade of good brain functioning, a new study suggests.

    The study found that seniors who got moderate to intense exercise retained more of their mental skills over the next five years, versus older adults who got light exercise or none at all.

    On average, those less-active seniors showed an extra 10 years of "brain aging," the researchers said.

    The findings do not prove that exercise itself slows brain aging, cautioned senior researcher Dr. Clinton Wright, a neurologist at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

    It's possible, he said, that there are other reasons why active older adults stayed mentally sharper.

    The researchers accounted for some of those other explanations -- including people's education levels, smoking habits and health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

    And exercise levels were still connected to the participants' performance on tests of memory and "processing speed" -- the ability to digest a bit of new information, then respond to it.

    Plus, Wright said, it's plausible that exercise would affect those mental skills. Other research has shown that physical activity boosts blood flow to the brain, and may enhance the connections among brain cells, for example.

    Exercise can also help manage "vascular risk factors," such as high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol levels and diabetes, Wright pointed out.

    That's important because many studies have suggested that some of the same risk factors for heart disease and stroke also boost the odds of dementia.

    The new study findings were published March 23 in the journal Neurology.

    Dr. Ezriel Kornel, a neurosurgeon who was not involved in the study, agreed that the findings don't prove that exercise will keep you thinking clearly.

    "It could simply be that people who are drawn to exercise are also at lower risk of cognitive decline," said Kornel, a clinical assistant professor of neurological surgery at Weill Cornell Medical College, in New York City.

    That said, he called the study "important," because it at least suggests that exercise could have a big impact on people's mental function as they age.

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