Tone up: Increasingly scientists have realised that being physically active is like drinking a tonic for your brain. When you start exercising, blood rushes around your body, including your brain. Never one to miss an opportunity, your brain takes advantage of this added oxygen and nutrients and refreshes itself, building new neurons and connections. This builds your brain reserves, backup funds for a rainy day, such as when damage occurs. Exercising three times per week was linked with a whopping 38% reduced risk of developing dementia over a 6 year period, in a study of over 65s. Another investigation found that physical activity in older adults with known cognitive impairment reduced the risk of dementia by 28% and AD by 45%. If a little pill could do this, it would fly off the shelves.
But be aware that these results are from a small number of studies and more research is needed so we can’t say for sure that physical exercise will prevent dementia in any one person; however it makes perfect sense to take this approach until we have more evidence.
Prof Yaakov Stern explains how exercise can build brain reserve.
Physical activity: Exercise is when you plan and repeat an activity such as running or weight training. However you don’t need to be a gym bunny or buy fancy sports gear to collect brain bonuses. Activities that get your body moving like walking, gardening or housework all count when it comes to boosting brain health. As long as its aerobic exercise, which means moderately exerting yourself by say swimming or walking, rather than sprinting or lifting (anaerobic), you will reap the rewards. A six-month trial found that an aerobic walking programme of 45 minutes, three times per week, resulted in an added buzz of activity in brain cells associated with attention. A longer study which used brain imaging to look at changes in the brain resulting from exercise supported this apparent healthy uptick.
Mice and men: Experimenting on human minds has never been fashionable, so scientists tend to use mice and rats. When scientists placed mice in more complex living quarters than your standard lab abode, providing them with more living space, greater social interaction and more physical activity, they were in for a surprise. New neurons tended to survive at a higher rate in these mice, resulting in more brain growth. What was surprising though was that of all the factors in this experiment, physical activity seemed to be most important. Voluntary running, on a running wheel, led to the survival of as many neurons as all the other enrichment conditions combined. In another study, middle-aged rats became memory masters when they went swimming for one hour each day. Studies on people suggest that we might also get brain rich by running, walking, swimming, dancing and so on.
Late bloomers do benefit: It seems it’s never too late to leave the couch and get active. A study of sedentary adults aged 60 to 75 placed half in a walking programme and the other half in a stretching and toning programme. The walkers – who were doing aerobic exercise, as opposed to anaerobic exercise – had brains that boasted significant improvement in executive skills, such as working memory, planning and scheduling, as well as speedier switching of executive tasks. It is thought that the brain gulps more oxygen during physical activity and that this may explain the improvements. Scientists are trying to find new drugs to support brain cell growth, but this is expected to only supplement and not replace activities we can do to help ourselves, lets get up and get moving.
Prevention is better than cure: Alzheimer’s has proven a tricky disease to treat. Scientists have tried to design drugs to cure the condition, but with repeated failures in drug trials, it seems unlikely that a single cure will turn up. What is more, once cognitive damage gets rooted in the brain in the case of Alzheimer’s disease, there is little that can be done to turn the clock back on damaged brain cells and their connections. Therefore, any steps that can head off or delay such damage deserve attention. Physical activity seems to lessen your chances of developing this disease; it is never too early to start. One study found that exercising at least twice a week at midlife was linked to a 52% reduced risk of dementia at age 65 to 79.
Fringe benefits: Staying active may benefit your brain, but it also offers other important benefits. Staying active can assist you to remain independent as you age and can improve your balance. It can also prevent or delay some diseases, while brightening your mood and helping to hold off depression. Being physically active gives you more energy to do the things you want to do – not less – and of course you will sleep soundly too. And sleep is something your brain thrives on.
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