Stay Physically Fit to Delay Brain Aging

By: Dr. Pascale Michelon

Walking, jogging, swimming, taking an aerobic class, all these obviously contribute to the good health of your body. Did you know that these could also help your brain stay healthy longer? Results presented recently at the meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, D.C., suggest that physically fit older men and women show fewer age-related changes in their brain than their less fit counterparts.

The study
123 healthy individuals (58 men and 65 women) between 50 and 89 years of age participated in the study. Their performance on treadmill tests served as indicators of their physical fitness. Brain scans allowed researchers to evaluate gray matter volume changes associated with age.

Age-related changes in the brain mostly consisted in reductions in gray matter volume in several areas in the frontal, parietal and lateral temporal cortex as well as in regions of the cerebellum.
Interestingly, the poorer the performance on the physical fitness tests, the bigger the age-related changes in the brain.  The best predictor of brain aging was a combination of the following fitness measures: Overall treadmill exercise time, ventilatory efficiency, and the difference between basal and maximal respiratory rate.
In addition, individuals who had high physical fitness scores were also the individuals who had the better performance on measures of memory, executive function, and processing speed.
In sum, regular exercise may be key in preserving the brain!

How does physical exercise impact brain health?
Multiple studies have now shown a link between physical fitness and brain fitness: The association seems quite robust and the causal relationship between the two well established.
Fitness exercise triggers neuroplastic changes in the brain. The volume of some brain regions, specifically regions associated with learning and memory (such as the hippocampus and the frontal lobes) have been shown to increase after a period of regular physical exercise.
What processes underlie these brain volume increases? Exercise seems to enhance the production of growth hormones such as BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). This triggers both neurogenesis (the production of new brain cells) and angiogenesis (the development of new blood vessels). BDNF also helps neurons survive and plays a role in the biological processes corresponding to the consolidation of memory. In addition, exercise increases the levels of some neurotransmitters such as serotonin, thereby facilitating the transmission of information between neurons.

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7 comments on “Stay Physically Fit to Delay Brain Aging

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