Exercise can help ward off dementia for women – while men need more brain training

Exercise can help you avoid dementia — but only if for woman, a new study finds.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) found that data showing that taking a brisk walk, cycling or even playing golf can help avoid mental decline in old age could only be applicable to women.

They believe that this may be because of the ‘type’ of exercise people engage in, with older women more likely to take part in group exercises that their male counterparts.

Cognitive exercise is valuable for all, researchers found, with both sexes able to slow aging by up to 13 years by taking part in mental activities including reading, playing bingo and attending classes.

Scientists at the University of California, San Diego, found women who exercised could ward off brain decline by two years and nine months. The same was not observed in men (stock)

‘We found greater physical activity was associated with greater thinking speed reserve in women, but not in men,’ Dr Judy Pa, neuroscientist at UCSD who led the study, said.

‘As we have arguably few-to-no effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, prevention is crucial. An ounce is worth a pound of treatment.

‘To know that people could potentially improve their cognitive reserve by taking simple steps such as going to classes at the community center, playing bingo with their friends or spending more time walking or gardening is very exciting.’

In the study — published Wednesday in the journal Neurology — scientists evaluated the mental capacity of 758 people who were around 76 years old.


Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain, in which build-up of abnormal proteins causes nerve cells to die.

This disrupts the transmitters that carry messages, and causes the brain to shrink.

It affects some 920,000 people in the UK — a figure set to rise to 2million by 2050.


As brain cells die, the functions they provide are lost.

That includes memory, orientation and the ability to think and reason.

The progress of the disease is slow and gradual.

On average, patients live five to seven years after diagnosis, but some may live for ten to 15 years.

Some had no thinking or memory problems, some had mild cognitive impairment, and others had dementia.

To measure mental activity, participants were given one point for whether they read magazines, books or newspapers; went to classes; and played card games over the past 13 months.

And to measure physical activity they were interviewed about what exercise they took part in each week. 

They scored about 1.4 points on average, and undertook activity that elevated their heart rate for about 15 minutes each week. 

Participants then had brain scans and underwent thinking and memory speed test to evaluate their cognitive reserve — the buffer the brain generates to cover up decline.

Results showed women who exercised more saw a protective effect on their brains that was not seen in men who also exercised more.

Explaining the results, scientists wrote in the paper: ‘The sex-specific results… may be related to the types of activities women vs. men engaged in.

‘Although no differences were observed for card playing and reading behaviors by sex, women did report higher levels of group-based classes than men.

‘Contrary to card play and reading activities, group-based classes inherently encompass a social component that may differentially engage cognitive abilities.’

Limitations in the study included that it was focused on north Manhattan, New York, meaning it excluded people in rural areas.

About two-thirds of participants were also female, while the rest were men.

It also did not measure societal and structural factors, which the scientists said were ‘major determinants’ of mental capacity.

They said more studies were needed to determine whether exercise had a more preventative effect against dementia in women only.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says regular exercise can reduce a person’s risk of developing dementia.

It advises all adults should get about 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise — such as a bike ride or brisk walk — every week to boost brain health.

One paper published in December last year by researchers at the Queensland Brain Institute, Australia, found there may be an exercise ‘sweet spot’ for slowing cognitive decline.

A second from researchers at the University of California suggested daily power walking or riding a bike could cut someone’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

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