Regular leisure-time activity appears to be linked to younger, healthier brains in older adults, a preliminary study has found.

Investigators used magnetic resonance imaging to measure the brains of older people who reported a range of leisure-time activity – from inactive to very active. The most active participants had a brain volume equivalent to someone four years younger. In contrast, the least active individuals had smaller brain volume – a measure that’s tied to cognitive decline, reported Yian Gu, M.D., Ph.D., of Columbia University, New York.

Some brain shrinkage is normal in aging, but significant volume loss is tied to dementia and other disease. The results support growing evidence that greater activity throughout life protects against brain volume loss, said Gu. 

“These results are exciting, as they suggest that people may potentially prevent brain shrinking and the effects of aging on the brain simply by becoming more active,” Gu said.

The study involved 1,557 people with an average age of 75. The most active reported a weekly total of either seven hours of low-intensity physical activity, four hours of moderate physical activity or two hours of high-intensity physical activity. 

Results remained similar after investigators excluded data from 296 participants with mild cognitive impairment. 

The study will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 72nd Annual Meeting in Toronto, Canada, this spring.