Background: Little is known about how different physical activity (PA) parameters relate to cognitive function in older adults. Using accelerometers calibrated to detect vertical impacts from ground reaction forces we examined the associations of low, medium and higher impact PA with processing speed, verbal memory and cognitive state in older adults.
Methods: Participants were 69-year old British men and women from the Medical Research Council National Survey of Health and Development included in a vertical impacts and bone sub-study (n = 558; 48.2% female). Counts of low (0.5 < g < 1.0 g), medium (1 < g < 1.5 g), or higher (≥1.5 g) magnitude impacts were derived from vertical acceleration peaks recorded over 7 days by hip-worn accelerometers. Processing speed was assessed by a timed visual letter search task, verbal memory by a 15-word list learning test and cognitive state by the Addenbrooke’s Cognitive Examination (ACE-III). Potential confounders were childhood cognitive ability, adult socioeconomic position, body mass index and depression.
Results: In initial sex-adjusted models, low magnitude impacts were associated with better performance in all three cognitive function tests; standard deviation differences in test scores per doubling in number of low impacts: letter search speed = 0.10 (95% confidence intervals (CI): 0.03 to 0.16), word learning test = 0.05 (95% CI: 0.00 to 0.11), ACE-III scale = 0.09 (95% CI: 0.03 to 0.14). After adjustment for confounders, differences persisted for letter search speed (0.09; 95% CI: 0.02 to 0.16) but were closer to the null for the word learning test (0.02; 95% CI: − 0.04 to 0.07) and ACE-III scores (0.04; 95% CI: − 0.01 to 0.09). Low impacts remained associated with letter search speed after sensitivity analyses excluding those with functional and musculoskeletal problems, and after adjustment for impacts in higher bands. Modest positive associations between higher magnitude impacts and cognitive test scores were most likely due to chance.
Conclusion: Accelerometer-derived low impact physical activity was associated with better visual processing speed in 69-year old men and women independently of childhood cognitive ability and other measured confounders. Day-to-day low impact physical activity may therefore have the potential to benefit cognitive health in older adults.
- Birth cohorts
- Physical activity
- Vertical impacts