Regular exercise can extend cognitive life expectancy

The life expectancy of Americans has grown dramatically over the past 50 years thanks to major advances in medical science. Unfortunately, advancing age has brought with it an increase in age-related conditions including visual loss, arthritis, vascular disease and kidney disease.

Neurodegenerative conditions including Alzheimer’s disease and other related dementias have presented some of the greatest challenges to enjoying these advancing years.

Approximately 5.7 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. It is a disease that robs its victims of their most intimate memories and the ability to learn new information. These numbers will grow as the population ages and this has lead to the application of a new measure termed “cognitive life expectancy.“

Cognitive life expectancy is best defined as the length of time adults can live with good versus declining brain health. A recent study presented at a national meeting estimates that Americans have an average of 12 years of good cognitive health beyond age 65.

A series of recent articles published in the journal Neurology and its related publications have looked at proven ways to increase cognitive life expectancy through exercise.

In general, fitness activities were considered to be aerobic, resistance and a combination of aerobic and resistance. Mind-body exercises including yoga and tai chi were considered as a separate mode.

In one comprehensive review of the literature on this topic, a combination of one hour per day, three times per week of any of these modalities resulted in improved cognitive testing.

A study of Swedish women over a period of 44 years found that women with a high level of cardiovascular fitness during midlife had an 88 percent decrease in dementia compared to a medium fitness group.

Participation in a regular exercise program can be a big factor in extending the cognitive lifespan. Although this can be helpful at any age, following an exercise regimen beginning in early life has the most benefit.

Dr. Alessi is a neurologist in Norwich and serves as an on-air contributor for ESPN. He is director of UConn NeuroSport and can be reached at

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