Exercise may ward off small brain lesions known as "silent strokes," which are often the first sign in that the brain's blood vessels have accumulated damage, according to a new study.

The six-year study of 1,238 people showed those who engaged in moderate to intense exercise were 40 percent less likely to have the silent strokes than people who did no regular exercise.

There was no difference between those who engaged in light exercise and those who did not exercise.

Silent strokes have been associated with an increased risk of falls, impaired mobility, memory problems and dementia , as well as stroke, said study author Dr. Joshua Z. Willey, of Columbia University in New York. "Encouraging older people to take part in moderate to intense exercise may be an important strategy for keeping their brains healthy," Willey said.

The participants completed a questionnaire about how often and how intensely they exercised at the beginning of the study.Then, they had MRI scans of their brains an average of six years later, when they were an average of 70 years old.

The brain scans showed 197 of the participants, or 16 percent, had small brain lesions, or infarcts, called silent strokes.

The study was published online today (June 8) in the journal Neurology.

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