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Mental Health

“What was I going to pick up after work today?”

“Where did I leave my keys?”

“What’s the name of that cute, tall guy I just met?”

These may be a few simple questions you ask yourself daily (bonus points if you ask yourself the third one regularly). These little questions may not cause you to worry if you’re under 40, but as we have the privilege to grow older, just as our bodies do, our minds age, and these “little” questions may become part of a bigger problem.

What if there was a way you could prevent the decline of your mind?

What if you could preserve your cognitive function, mental clarity, and decision-making? What if you could start battling dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease through a simple daily action today?

Researchers have long noted the physical benefits that occur with exercise: improve your cardiorespiratory function, lose weight, control your appetite, prevent against metabolic diseases, diabetes, high blood pressure and types of cancer, and live to meet your grandchildren.

Now, researchers are also noting a link between high cardiorespiratory fitness and preventing age-related losses of cognitive function.

A study from Cambridge University noted that regular aerobic exercise, such as running, swimming or rowing, prevented memory loss by triggering the growth of grey matter (a type of tissue) in the brain. Grey matter primarily functions to process information from sensory organs in the body and direct motor function through the central nervous system. Cells within this tissue of the brain transport nutrients and energy and may have a role in overall function and communication of neurons (aka brain health!) A multitude of other studies have focused on the volume of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, specific areas of the brain whose main functions are related to recalling past memories and detecting new surroundings and stimuli. Impaired memory and confusion, typical symptoms of Alzheimer’s patients, is due to the hippocampus shrinking in late adulthood.

Dr. Hideaki Soya, a professor at the University of Tsukuba, recruited 60 men ages 64-75, with no signs of serious cognitive decline to test the relationship of aerobic fitness and cognitive function, particularly within the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Subjects underwent fitness and mental testing, which placed considerable demands on executive brain function, decision-making and reaction time. The more physically fit subjects displayed brain activity and function that much resembled results commonly seen in younger people. In the less fit subjects, both the right and left PFC were activated and needed to complete the mental task, whereas the fittest subjects only activated their left PFC to complete the same task, (with faster and more accurate reaction times!)  From these results, Dr. Soya suggested, “higher aerobic fitness is associated with improved cognitive function”.

A team of researchers across four major universities in the United States conducted a study of 120 older adults without dementia to determine the effect of aerobic exercise on hippocampus size and memory. All subjects underwent brain scans prior to a six-month period where half participated in an exercise intervention program and the other half served as a control group. Hippocampal size increased in the exercise group, but decreased in the control group. In fact, in the exercise group, hippocampal size increased by 2%, enough to conclude this would effectively reverse age-related loss of brain tissue and therefore function!

Exercise to improve brain health is not limited to aging adults. Physical activity in children has been shown to improve executive brain function that may influence and decrease attention-based problems, improve test scores, and boost creativity, curiosity and learning. Exercise enhances learning and improves recall and retention of information-brain functions leading to better academic performance.

While more research is being conducted to better understand how exercise effects brain function and mental health, all signs point toward taking that brisk walk, morning run or afternoon swim.

Young or old, exercise improves our bodies and our minds!