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Articles September 2011 Issue

Strenuous Exercise Linked to Fewer “Silent Strokes” in Elderly

To reduce your risk of stroke, really break a sweat. In a new study published in Neurology, researchers report that older people who engaged in moderate to intense exercise were 40% less likely to suffer “silent strokes” than those engaging in no leisure-time physical activity.

“These ‘silent strokes’ are more significant than the name implies,” says study author Joshua Z. Willey, MD, MS, of Columbia University, “because they have been associated with an increased risk of falls and impaired mobility, memory problems and even dementia, as well as stroke. Encouraging older people to take part in moderate to intense exercise may be an important strategy for keeping their brains healthy.”

Dr. Willey and colleagues looked at 1,238 participants in the Northern Manhattan Study Cohort who had not been diagnosed with a stroke. Participants completed a questionnaire about how often and how intensely they exercised at the beginning of the study. They then had MRI scans of their brains an average of six years later, when they were an average of 70 years old.

A total of 43% of the participants reported that they got no regular exercise. Another 36% engaged in regular light exercise, such as golf, walking, bowling or dancing. Only 21% reported regular moderate to intense exercise, such as hiking, tennis, swimming, biking, jogging or racquetball.

The brain scans showed that 197 of the participants, or 16%, had small brain lesions, or infarcts, called silent strokes. People who engaged in moderate to intense exercise were 40% less likely to suffer the silent strokes than people who got no regular exercise. The results remained the same after the researchers took into account other vascular risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking.

The Warning Signs of Stroke
    • Sudden numbness or weakness in face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body.
    • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding.
    • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
    • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness or loss of balance or coordination.
    • Sudden severe headache with no known cause. If you or a loved one experience any of these warning signs, call 9-1-1 immediately.

But only the most-active seniors saw a benefit against silent strokes. There was no difference between those who engaged in light exercise and those who did not exercise at all.

“Of course, light exercise has many other beneficial effects,” Dr. Wiley adds, “and these results should not discourage people from doing light exercise.”

TO LEARN MORE: Neurology, June 2011; abstract at dx.doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0b013e31821f4472. “What You Can Do to Prevent a Stroke,” Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter Special Supplement, August 2010.

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