You’ve heard proper exercise is important for your health. It tones muscle, burns fat, and helps keep your heart and lungs in tiptop shape.
But if that isn’t reason enough, numerous studies now prove exercise also plays a critical role in preventing age-related memory and cognitive decline.
Post-mortem studies of human brains for over a century have documented physical damage which corresponds to a steady decline in memory and cognitive function as we age.
Starting around our early 30s, our brain weight and volume actually begins shrinking by about 2% per decade. Fortunately, numerous studies in neurobiology also show we have the ability to minimize the effects of this physical decline – and possibly reverse it altogether.
Two types of exercise protect your brain
Forbes magazine recently spoke to a Hawaiian lady who remains sharp as a tack at 102 years old. Credit for her good health was given in large part to her active physical and social life, including daily swimming and frequent games of bridge and mahjong.
But can physical exercise and playing games really have a positive impact on your mental health? According to a number of researchers in the fields of neurology and biology, yes it can.
A 2007 review of numerous human and animal studies by researchers at the University of California – Irvine’s Institute for Brain Aging and Dementia found exercise clearly protects learning and memory, minimizes mental decline, and can even help alleviate depression.
Exercise directly strengthens the systems which promote mental function including improving metabolism and vascular function. It also reduces disease risk factors which contribute to brain dysfunction and degeneration such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease.
While physical exercise positively affects the brain in numerous ways, the researchers believe the benefits all derive from a common mechanism: reduced local and systemic inflammation.
Another study published in the Journal of Gerontology found cardiovascular
fitness substantially reduces the amount of brain tissue lost from aging.
However, exercise doesn’t just slow mental decline. Normally, the rate of formation of new brain cells declines as we age. But a new study published in May by Germany’s prestigious Max Plank Institute of Immunobiology found physical exercise may actually reverse decline by stimulating dormant stem cells in the hippocampus region of the brain to begin dividing into new brain cells again. Looks like you really can teach the proverbial old dog new tricks.
Use it or lose it applies to the brain as well as other areas of life. A number of studies have shown that regular participation in intellectually stimulating activities can reduce the risk of mental decline and even severe disease like Alzheimer’s.
A five-year study by Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago found even leisure activities such as reading a newspaper can have a positive effect, with more thinking activities directly corresponding to a reduced risk of an Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis.
Recent studies have also shown training programs specifically geared towards improving memory and thinking can boost mental capacity well into our
later years. The final lesson: get out from in front of the television, get some exercise,
then play a game or read a book. It might just save your brain.
Lugert S, et al. Quiescent and active hippocampal neural stem cells with distinct morphologies respond selectively to physiological and pathological stimuli and aging. Cell Stem Cell. 2010 May 7;6(5):445-56.
Raz N. Aging of the Brain and Its Impact on Cognitive Performance: Integration of Structural and Functional Findings. In: Craik FIM, Salthouse TA, eds. The Handbook of Aging and Cognition. 2nd ed. Mahweh, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; 2000:1-90.
Buchman A; Wilson R; Bennett D. Total Daily Activity is Associated With Cognition in Older Persons. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry:August 2008 – Volume 16 – Issue 8 – pp 697-701
Langreth, R. How To Keep Your Brain Young. Forbes. 2009 Apr 07.
Cotman CW, Berchtold NC, Christie LA. Exercise builds brain health: key roles of growth factor cascades and inflammation. Trends in neurosciences. 2007 Sep;30(9):464-72.
Sternberg R. Increasing fluid intelligence is possible after all. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. PNAS 2008 105 (19) 6791-6792
Wilson RS, et al. Participation in cognitively stimulating activities and risk of incident Alzheimer disease. JAMA. 2002 Feb 13;287(6):742-8.
Barnes DE, et al. Computer-based cognitive training for mild cognitive impairment: results from a pilot randomized, controlled trial.
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