Exercise can keep the mind young, according to a study published in the journal NeuroImage.
The research suggests that people with better general fitness have larger brains and better memory function. It concludes that exercise can promote the growth of new cells in the hippocampus — where new memories are stored — and help to protect against Alzheimer’s disease.
The study, carried out by a collaboration of neuroscientists from Britain and the US, involved tests in which 30 men and women over the age of 50 ran on a treadmill. Their lung capacity, heart health, and brain function were measured. They found that blood flow to the brain was significantly higher in those who were fitter.
These results have been demonstrated even more effectively in other studies on mice. US government scientists compared mice with access to an exercise wheel to those without, and found that in a very specific part of the hippocampus, the exercising mice had up to three times as many new brain cells.
Heidi Johansen-Berg, a neuroscientist at Oxford University, said: ‘Studying how physical and cognitive activity affects brain structure and function is particularly pressing given the growing global health burden of age-related cognitive and brain decline.’
Dr Clare Walton, of the Alzheimer’s Society, said: ‘Of all the lifestyle factors known to impact your risk of developing dementia, taking regular exercise seems to be one of the best things you can do.
‘You don’t need to hit the gym to keep fit, try anything that gets your heart rate up for 30 minutes or more, like taking a brisk walk, a game of tennis or a dance class.’
The salient message is that perhaps it is never too late to start reversing the process of brain ageing through exercise. Even light exercise can increase blood flow, and therefore oxygenation, to the brain, better enabling the brain to rewire itself. That is without even mentioning its benefits to our mental health. Crucially, exercise also clears some of the toxins and proteins that can accumulate to cause neurodegeneration.
A BBC One show, How To Stay Young, recently showed how an exercise regime might improve scores in cognitive testing. The suggestion was that even after a short period of time the brain grew quantifiably thicker, or ‘regrew’ in certain areas.
Research score: 3/5