NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – Participating in an activity, especially regular physical exercise, appears to protect hospitalized elderly patients from developing delirium, according to study findings published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

“Delirium is a common, life-threatening clinical syndrome that is preventable,” Dr. Frances M. Yang, of Harvard Medical School, Boston, and colleagues write. “Given its high prevalence and incidence and its association with poor outcomes, finding mechanisms to prevent delirium remains a high priority.”

The researchers looked for factors associated with delirium in 779 newly hospitalized patients. The patients were at least 70 years of age and were free of dementia at the beginning of the study.

The team found a significant association between higher levels of education and a lower cumulative risk for delirium. More participation in activity was also related to a lower risk of delirium. Further analysis of the data revealed that engagement in an activity mediated the relationship between education and risk for delirium.

When each activity was considered separately, only regular exercise significantly lowered the risk for developing delirium by 24 percent.

“The mechanism by which regular physical exercise improves cognitive functioning in older adults appears to operate through increases in gray and white matter volume in the prefrontal and temporal cortices, where age-related brain volume loss occurs,” Yang and colleagues explain.

“Therefore, older patients who engage in regular exercise may experience less neural decline and higher maintenance of brain volume and may also better withstand common precipitants of delirium.”

SOURCE: Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, August 2008.