Older individuals who are physically active may be protecting themselves from the impact of small areas of brain damage that can affect their ability to move, study results say. The study appears online in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology (AAN).

A news release issued by the AAN notes that many older adults exhibit small areas of brain damage on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) as white matter hyperintensities. Higher levels of this damage have also reportedly been linked to more issues with movement, such as difficulty walking. Yet, the new study states that individuals who were the most physical active did not exhibit drop-off in their movement abilities, even when they had high levels of brain damage.

Debra A. Fleischman, PhD, Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, study author, notes in the release that the study’s results highlight the importance of encouraging a more active lifestyle in older adults to prevent movement issues.

“Physical activity may create a ‘reserve’ that protects motor abilities against the effects of age-related brain damage,” Fleischman adds.

The study encompassed a total of 167 individuals with an average age of 80 years old. Participants donned movement monitors on their wrists for up to 11 days to measure both exercise and non-exercise activity. The participants also took 11 tests of their movement abilities, the release says. MRI scans were used to determine the volume of white matter hyperintensities in the brain.

The results indicate that compared to individuals at the 50th percent in activity level measured using movement monitors, those who were in the top 10% had activity equal to walking at 2.5 mph for an additional 1.5 hours each day.

The release notes that for individuals in the top 10%, having greater amounts of brain damage did not change their scores on the movement tests. Yet, for those who were at the 50th percent activity level, having greater amounts of brain damage was linked to significantly lower scores on movement tests. For all participants, the average score on the movement tests was 1.04. For individuals at the 50th percent activity level, scores ranged from 1.16 for those with the lowest amount of brain damage to 0.9 for those with the highest amount of brain damage. The detrimental impact was stronger for individuals with the lowest levels of physical activity, the release states.

According to the study, its results remained the same after researchers adjusted for other factors that could affect the relationship, such as body mass index (BMI), depression, and vascular disease.

Fleischman emphasizes that the study does not determine whether physical activity causes individuals to preserve their mobility. Instead, it only exhibits the association.

[Source: AAN]