During aging, physical activity can help to keep cognitive faculties functioning, even after the onset of dementia, according to new research published in the journal Neurology.

While researchers have long observed a connection between inactivity and dementia, they were unsure whether dementia led to inactivity, or whether activity helps prevent the damage. The new research suggests the latter – and that activity can even continue to sharpen the mind after dementia-related damage has occurred, according to NBC News.

Dr. Aron Buchman, of Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center, tracked 454 people starting in 1997, continuing until their deaths. The memory and cognitive function of the volunteers was tested regularly through tests, and they wore devices to track daily activity. They also consented to having their brains studied after death.

The researchers found that even a modest amount of exercise or activity led to clearer thinking, better memory, and improved comprehension throughout the aging process, even for those that simply moved around more as part of their normal daily routine. This even including such mundane tasks as chopping onions.

The cognitive benefits seemed to not only come from heavy exertion, but also from use of motor skills, such as tasks that involve gripping or turning.

According to Buchman, “even though we don’t have a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease pathology, and we know people are accumulating it, you can mitigate the deleterious effects … by having more activity.”

While the study clearly shows that exercise helps the brain weather the effects of aging and dementia, it doesn’t shed light on how it does so.

“There must be other proteins or molecular mechanisms that we didn’t check or new pathologies that are waiting to be discovered,” said Buchman.

The study was limited in that it did not take into account how active the participants had been earlier in life – Buchman says this is another area for further study.

Five million Americans currently suffer from dementia, and this number is expected to grow as the population ages. While drugs exist that can mitigate the symptoms, none are able to reverse the process of cognitive decline.

While exercise and activity don’t reverse the neurological damage that causes dementia, the research suggests it can give the brain additional “cognitive reserve” – resources that can help with cognition and memory, even in the face of such damage.

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