Any regular exercise at any age is associated with better brain function in later life, a 30-year UK study has concluded.

But maintaining an exercise routine throughout adulthood is best for preserving mental acuity and memory, the researchers said.

Analysis of a cohort born in 1946 and followed up at various intervals showed that those who reported being physically active at all time points they were assessed in adulthood had higher cognition in tests done at the age of 69 years.

Data from the 1,400 participants found the strongest, dose-response association between sustained cumulative physical activity and cognitive state in later life on aspects such as verbal memory and processing speed.

Those taking part were asked about how regularly they did physical activity at the ages of 36, 43, 53, 60-64, and 69 and categorised as inactive, moderately active (one to four times a month), or most active (five or more times a month).

In all, 11% were physically inactive at all five time points and 15% were found to be active at all ages assessed, they reported in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.

The researchers also took into account cardiovascular and mental health, and having the APOE-ε4 gene, to see if that had any impact on the associations found.

The effect sizes they uncovered were similar across all adult ages, and for those who were moderately and most physically active.

They concluded ‘Being physically active at any time in adulthood, even if participating as little as once per month, is linked with higher cognition.’

The link between cumulative exercise and later life cognition was partly explained by childhood cognition, socioeconomic position, and education, they found but it the effect was still significant when these were factored in.

Associations were not explained by differences in cardiovascular or mental health in later life, they added.

‘Together, these results suggest that the initiation and maintenance of physical activity across adulthood may be more important than the timing of participating in physical activity in the life course, or the frequency of physical activity at a specific period,’ the researchers said.

‘Our findings provide evidence that encouraging inactive adults to be more active at any time across the life span, and encouraging already active adults to maintain activity, could confer benefits on later-life cognition.’

Last year, a study published in the BMJ found that participants who received interventions from primary care were 33% more likely to achieve the recommended amount of moderate to vigorous physical activity.

This article first appeared on our sister publication, Pulse.