Earlier research has already shown that even moderate daily activity such as walking 20-30 minutes each day can have positive effects on maintaining memory fitness in old age. New evidence shows that moderate to intense physical activity can provide additional benefits in terms of reduced ‘silent strokes’ – the first sign of cerebrovascular disease or stroke.

A study published in Neurology online, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, tested the hypothesis that small brain lesions, also known as ‘silent strokes’, may be the first sign of cerebrovascular disease. The study revealed a few surprises including what many believe to be a major breakthrough… that older people who regularly exercise at a moderate to intense level have lower chances of developing the small brain lesions and therefore maintaining their memory fitness.

Other findings suggest that these ‘silent strokes’ appear to be associated with a higher risk of falls and impaired mobility. Higher stroke risk also increases risks of memory loss including dementia.

Researchers closely monitored 1,238 people with no history of stroke. At the beginning of the study, participants filled out a questionnaire on how often and how intensely they exercised or did some form of physical activity. About 43 % of participants claimed no regular exercise; 36 % were involved in regular light exercise, such as golf, walking, bowling or dancing; the remaining 21 % reported participating in moderate to intense exercise including hiking, tennis, racquetball, swimming, jogging or biking.

After six years – at an average age of 70 – they underwent MRI scans of their brains. Analysis found that 197 of the participants, or 16 %, had small brain lesions or infarcts otherwise known as silent strokes. Those performing moderate to intense exercise appeared 40 percent less likely to have the silent strokes than people who did no regular exercise. The results apparently remained unaffected even after adjusting for vascular risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking. No difference registered between those who were engaged in light exercise and those who did not exercise.

A ‘silent stroke’ is significant, because of the association with increased risk of falls and impaired mobility and memory problems, in addition to stroke. These findings should encourage older people to consider taking part in medically appropriate moderate to intense exercise – under physician’s care – as an important strategy for keeping their brains healthy and their memory fitness maintained.