March 23, 2015

Physical Activity May Reduce Age-Related Movement Problems

At a Glance

  • Physical activity may help improve movement problems associated with brain lesions in older people.
  • The results highlight the importance of an active lifestyle for older adults. 
Healthy older cyclists. Research has found that, whatever your health and physical abilities, you can gain a lot by being active.

Age-related brain lesions known as white matter hyperintensities have been linked to movement problems and disabilities later in life. These lesions, which appear as bright spots on MRI images, can be used as a proxy measure of brain white matter disease. They are thought to reflect small blood vessel disease, and have also have been associated with dementia and other health issues in older people.

Previous research has found that seniors who are more physically active are at lower risk for walking difficulties and other movement problems. Researchers led by Dr. Debra A. Fleischman of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago examined whether physical activity can affect the link between age-related brain lesions and motor function in older adults. The study was partly funded by NIH’s National Institute on Aging (NIA), National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), and National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD).

The researchers scanned the brains of 167 healthy older adults who were participating in a larger study of memory and aging. The participants’ average age was 80. The investigators gave the participants various movement and strength tests. Participants also wore monitors on their wrists for up to 11 days to measure daily physical activity. The study appeared online in Neurology on March 11, 2015.

As expected, the researchers found that more physical activity was associated with better motor function. More age-related brain lesions were generally linked to poorer motor function. Physical activity levels were not related to the amount of lesions. However, among participants who were most active, the lesions weren’t linked to poorer motor skills. Other factors like body mass index and vascular disease had no effect on the relationship between the brain lesions, daily activity, and motor function.

These results suggest that the level of physical activity later in life doesn’t affect white matter hyperintensities but influences motor function via some other pathway. How physical activity might protect motor skills from the effects of these age-related brain lesions remains unknown. Previous studies suggest that physical activity may enhance brain health by increasing blood flow and other vascular functions in the brain.

“These results underscore the importance of efforts to encourage a more active lifestyle in older people to prevent movement problems, which is a major public health challenge,” Fleischman says. “Physical activity may create a ‘reserve’ that protects motor abilities against the effects of age-related brain damage.”

The associations found in this study suggest, but don’t prove, that physical activity can protect against the loss of motor function caused by age-related brain lesions. The group is now monitoring brain scans over time to more closely examine the relationships between white matter hyperintensities, physical activity, and motor function.

Related Links

Reference: Physical activity, motor function, and white matter hyperintensity burden in healthy older adults. Fleischman DA, Yang J, Arfanakis K, Arvanitakis Z, Leurgans SE, Turner AD, Barnes LL, Bennett DA, Buchman AS. Neurology. 2015 Mar 11. doi: 10.1212/WNL. 0000000000001417. [Epub ahead of print]. PMID: 25762710.

Funding: NIH’s National Institute on Aging (NIA), National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), and National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD); Illinois Department of Public Health; and Rush Translational Science Consortium.