When it comes to maintaining physical strength, balance and flexibility during the senior years, the phrase, “use it, or lose it,” may come to mind. Now it appears the same holds true for the maintenance of brain health and cognitive function. A new study suggests that exercise has positive effects that may slow normal age-related cognitive decline. Physical activity stimulates the growth of muscle cells and supports the brain on multiple levels. Aerobic exercise, in particular, may improve and protect information processing and memory functions, especially in later life.
Maintaining brain health and plasticity throughout life is particularly crucial from middle age onward, a time of challenges that can include the development of neurodegenerative diseases. Studies have shown that physical activity is associated with lowered risks of cognitive impairment, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Perhaps most significantly, data supports the role of exercise in increased neuronal survival, the promotion of brain vascularization, and the stimulation of neurogenesis, as well as enhanced learning and the maintenance of cognitive function during aging.
It appears that regular aerobic exercise provides a simple way to maintain brain function and promote brain plasticity. Physical activity directly benefits the brain through its ability to reduce insulin resistance and inflammation, known contributors to cognitive decline. Exercise stimulates the release of growth factors like brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which helps to repair and protect brain cells. Growth factors, or brain chemicals, affect not only the quantity and survival of new brain cells, but also the growth of new blood vessels and neuronal connectors. Indirectly, exercise can improve mood, support restful sleep, and reduce stress and anxiety. Depression, poor sleep, anxiety and chronic stress are often viewed as contributors to cognitive impairment.
A recent study that looked at the connection between exercise and brain health, measured physical fitness by testing the participants’ maximum oxygen consumption during aerobic exercise. Known as the VO2 max test, this method is recognized by the American Heart Association as an objective way to measure cardiovascular fitness. The study was able to link greater physical fitness with healthier brain white matter. The integrity of white matter, where billions of neurons are bundled together, provides an indication of how well brain areas communicate. Healthier white matter correlates with better memory and learning abilities, as well as higher executive functions. Participants with lower levels of aerobic fitness, and consequently weaker white matter, performed worse on memory and reasoning tests.
Similar to its role in cardiac and overall health, exercise benefits the brain by improving blood flow, reducing inflammation and raising oxygen levels. While the role of exercise in forestalling dementia continues to be studied, scientific data supports staying active throughout life. Per the lead study author Dr. Kan Ding, a neurologist from the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute, “This research supports the hypothesis that improving people’s fitness may improve their brain health and slow down the aging process.” The amount of exercise needed to receive these health benefits is relatively small. Just 30 minutes of brisk walking most days of the week or one hour of aerobic activity three days a week may help determine neurocognitive performance in the golden years.
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The Influence of Exercise on Cognitive Abilities. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3951958/
Study Finds Link Between Physical Fitness and Brain Health. https://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2018/02/20/study-finds-link-between-physical-fitness-and-brain-health/#7bae9e6c72c9
Cardiorespiratory Fitness and White Matter Neuronal Fiber Integrity in Mild Cognitive Impairment. https://content.iospress.com/articles/journal-of-alzheimers-disease/jad170415
Exercise: a behavioral intervention to enhance brain health and plasticity. https://www.cell.com/trends/neurosciences/fulltext/S0166-2236(02)02143-4?code=cell-site
The Simple Reason Exercise Enhances Your Brain. http://time.com/4752846/exercise-brain-health/
Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/regular-exercise-changes-brain-improve-memory-thinking-skills-201404097110
Physical Exercise for Brain Health. https://www.brainhq.com/brain-resources/everyday-brain-fitness/physical-exercise
Here’s How Much Exercise You Need to Keep Your Brain Healthy. http://time.com/5294493/exercise-healthy-brain-aging/