Evidence has been growing for years that exercise improves brain health, but research has mostly been carried out in younger people who are already mentally fit.
What about the benefits for people experiencing normal brain aging or those folks whose memories are already beginning to fail? Will physical exertion help them recover their brain power?
Scientists recently put these questions to the test and their findings are exciting, to say the least.
Many studies reveal a variety of brain benefits in cognitively healthy younger adults when they start an exercise program.
Now a new study, published in the journal Neurology in May, looked at the effects of exercise on older adults.
A Canadian research team enrolled sedentary, or “low active,” mentally healthy adults with an average age of 66. The group engaged in 40 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity four times a week for six months.
Before they got started with the exercise program, researchers tested their cognitive abilities and measured blood flow to the brain using ultrasound.
At the end of the study, blood flow increased by 2.8 percent. Executive function, which gives us the ability to plan and organize, focus, follow directions, and handle emotions, improved by 5.7 percent. Verbal fluency, the speed at which we can retrieve information from memory, increased by 2.4 percent.
While these changes might not appear to be very dramatic, lead researcher Marc Poulin begs to differ.
Dr. Poulin, from the University of Calgary in Alberta, said “this change in verbal fluency is what you’d expect to see in someone five years younger.”
He added that the improvement in verbal skills, memory and mental sharpness among the participants is happening at a time when mental faculties “would be expected to be decreasing due to normal aging, [so] to have these types of increases is exciting.”
Boosts Memory Scores by Almost Half
The Canadian study added to the existing literature on the brain benefits of aerobic fitness, but scientists from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center went further.
They wanted to know if similar results are obtainable in people with mild cognitive impairment — and therefore at a greater risk of Alzheimer’s — and if so, what’s happening in the brain to bring about these benefits.
To investigate, they enrolled 30 adults aged 60 or older with existing memory problems who carried out little or no regular exercise.
Half undertook brisk walking or cycling three times a week for 25-30 minutes for six months. Then they increased their exercise to 40 minutes, five times a week for an additional six months. The other participants just performed gentle stretching.
They were all given memory tests and undertook brain imaging at the start and again at the end of the study one year later.
The results, published in the May edition of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, showed that the exercise group enjoyed a 47 percent improvement in some memory scores, while the control group experienced only minor changes.
In addition, the exercisers saw an increase in blood flow to the anterior cingulate cortex and the hippocampus in the brain. The former plays a role in attention and memory, while the hippocampus affects both short and long-term memory functions.
Rarely is Memory Loss “Hopeless”
The takeaway from this study is that brain function can be improved, even in sedentary older people already afflicted with memory problems.
Or as lead researcher Bindu Thomas put it, “We’ve shown that even when your memory starts to fade, you can still do something about it…”
This is great news and reinforces other studies we’ve reported in this newsletter. I’m on record as saying exercise is the best medicine for your brain discovered so far.
The fact is, there is hope and help for people experiencing loss of memory and other cognitive functions. What’s more, it’s almost never a drug that brings about positive change, but easy-to-implement lifestyle changes.