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Could Exercise Save Your Brain?

A randomized controlled trial answers the question: Could exercise save your brain? with yes. Following a DASH diet as well may help even more.

There are a couple of health problems that everyone dreads. A diagnosis of cancer is most unwelcome. Neurological conditions run a close second, though. If a doctor diagnoses Parkinson’s disease, ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease), the patient has a right to be frightened. Equally devastating is a diagnosis of dementia. Can exercise improve cognitive function and perhaps delay the onset of dementia? In other words, might exercise save your brain? A new study suggests the answer could be yes.

Lace Up Your Sneakers to Have Exercise Save Your Brain:

In a study published in the journal Neurology (online Dec. 19, 2018), 160 volunteers with an average age of 65 tested the benefits of aerobic exercise, a DASH diet, a combination of the two, or health education sessions. The participants had cognitive impairments but no dementia when the study began. They completed cognitive tests to assess their executive function–the ability to plan, organize and make judgments.

Those who exercised for 45 minutes three times a week for six months made significant gains in tests of executive function. Adding the vegetable-rich DASH diet to the exercise helped even more. The improvement was the mental equivalent of dropping nine years from their age. That’s pretty impressive.

The volunteers assigned to health education sessions had worse scores on their executive function tests at the end of the six months than when they started. There are no drugs to ward off cognitive decline, but walking, jogging or cycling may be the best medicine for maintaining brain function as we age.

How Much Exercise Do You Need?

This is not the first research to demonstrate how you can use exercise to protect your brain. A study of three dozen healthy adults showed that even ten minutes of moderate physical activity can have measurable benefits for the brain (PNAS, Sept. 24, 2018).

Ten Minutes of Motion to Boost Your Brain:

The scientists used high-resolution functional magnetic resonance imaging to look at the volunteers’ brain activity before and after short exercise sessions. They found that after the workouts, the subjects’ brains had changed somewhat. They showed stronger connections between the hippocampal dentate gyrus and parts of the cerebral cortex that are important for processing memory. Consequently, the researchers are excited about this evidence that exercise improves the function of the hippocampus, which is a crucial area for memory.

Fit Kids Have Fit Brains:

Previous research has shown links between physical fitness and cognitive skills in young people. Moderate exercise even helps kids think better for several hours.

Another study showed a link between fitness and brain structure (Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Aug. 19, 2014). Brain scans of 24 youngsters nine to ten years old showed that those who were more fit had more white matter integrity, hinting that their brains might have better connectivity. That could, in theory, help them with memory and learning.

The research didn’t actually show whether exercise boosts brainpower or being sedentary saps it. For that, investigators will have to conduct controlled trials of structured physical activity at recess and after school.

Remember Grandma’s admonition in the old days was “Go out and play!” It seems that far too few kids actually get that opportunity these days. This research suggests we should find ways to make it far easier for kids (and their parents and grandparents) to get aerobic exercise. Even a little bit can help.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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I’m 91 years going on 92 and try to swim every day for 30 minutes. I still travel in Europe every year, make my own arrangements, drive my car, but I’m still able to live at home with out help. I think the swimming helped me a lot.

I turned 60 nearly four years ago. I attend high intensity interval training classes 5 days a week and when necessary I can modify the coach’s instructions to meet my physical limitations. I expect to live another 35 years and I want those years to be active and I want to feel strong. Get moving people!

The effect of any medicine (statins, etc.) or health practice (physical therapy, etc.) does not always produce identical or universal results which is why we are working toward providing individualized health care. While the 75 year-old hiker “may” now be beginning to show signs of dementia, it does not mean that exercise did not have some impact. For instance, exercise may have delayed the progression of her dementia. We do not know but we do know that exercise has been shown over and over to be good medicine for a better quality of life, both mentally and physically.

I have believed this for many years, after witnessing my elderly family and friends as they age. I’m now 68 and walk a mile several times a week. I have seen SOME exceptions. There are always exceptions; but most cases show me that mild exercise keeps one alert and balanced. And maybe best of all,free of depression. That translates to brain benefits, maybe simply from fresh air/oxygen and increased blood flow.

I am trying to come to grips with all of this over the top exercise – is it a craze, socializing or what? Look at all the knee and hip replacements! Gotta think we are overworking our joints! What’s wrong with long vigorous walks where you breathe fresh air, get sunshine and maybe meet some new neighbors and friends?

I have been walking daily for probably 35 years and look forward to each day. Whereas I hear – ‘I gotto get in my car and go excerize’ – inside! And you pay money to sweat with others inside!

In reply to Helen in N C
Don’t knock exercising indoors. Many of don’t live in an area where it’s safe to walk or where the climate prohibits it. I’d love to walk every day. but living in Seattle where it rains nearly every day for about 8 or 9 months of the year, I bless the gym I go to. I’m 85, participate in a 55 min. aerobic work out 3 days a week and have done something like that since I was about 45 and can still run up and down an 18 step stairway at least 6 times a day. So don’t knock organized exercise. It’s a wonderful way to work out, have a lot of fun and make good friends. Shirley

Absolutely!!! Exercise and a good plant based diet and adequate protein keep you young and vital!

I have a friend. Age 75. Has started having signs of dementia. She has hiked and climbed mountains since she was a child. She was our class valedictorian. The class brain. Both of her parents hiked and climbed. By hiking I mean 10 to 20 mike hikes, not just once a year, regularly. Every day they would walk. I don’t believe these findings.

Cara, I’m afraid you have no concept of how Statistics works, and no idea about the methods of Scientific research. I suspect you don’t like exercise or diets, so you convince yourself that the findings are wrong.

Cara’s friend is an anomaly, it seems. My experience as an 85 year-old woman convinces me of the efficacy of regular exercise. I have been aerobic dancing 2 to 3 days each week, and on the other 4 days I walk a mile. I may just be lucky but I believe the exercise not only is healthy but also it improves my attitude immediately.
Why not try it?

I wonder when her dementia would have started if she had not been so active.

One data point like your friend is not meaningful. You have to look at much larger groups of people to get a sense of whether any particular intervention or behavior is helpful.

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