Exercise Protects the Elderly Against Brain Shrinkage

11/06/2012

Exercise for seniors photoThe brain shrinks as we age, reducing memory and thinking abilities in the elderly and researchers are constantly looking at ways to minimize this atrophy of the brain. A study reported in The Washington Post, analyzed data from 691 adults in their early seventies, including other habits that may contribute to mental maintenance like social interaction and intellectually challenging activities. 

MRI scans showed less shrinkage in the brains of those that exercised regularly. Atrophy was the most noticeable in elderly men that did not exercise. Surprisingly, social and mental stimulation had no impact. Data came from responses to questionnaires. People who were in better health were more likely to exercise. 

Exercise Makes You Smarter

This isn’t the first study of its kind to point to a connection between brain shrinkage and exercise. Researchers led by Justin S. Rhodes, a psychology professor at the Beekman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois tested this premise on mice. The mice were tested on cognitive ability before entering their cages and then injected with a substance that marked changes in their cognition. After months in the cages they were tested once again. 

“Only one thing had mattered,” Rhodes says, “and that’s whether they had a running wheel.”

Exercise seems to slow the brain’s decay because just like other organs it’s made up of tissues that diminish with underuse and age. Exercise also seems to jumpstart the brain’s ability to make new cells. 

The ‘use it or lose it’ mentality is once again apparent. The same is true of the heart. Octogenarians, or those 80 to 89 years old, who have spent their lives doing endurance exercise have the aerobic capacity of someone half their age.

"This long decline into disability, it's not our biological destiny," Scott Trappe, an exercise researcher at Ball State University said. It's that lust for life that seems to preserve both the mental and physical body.

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Sara Novak writes about health and wellness for Discovery Health. Her work is also regularly featured in Breathe Magazine and on SereneKitchen.com. She has written extensively on food policy, food politics, and food safety.


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