Exercise Jogs From No-Brainer to Yes-Brainer

It seems that no matter what kind of physical ailment we have or wish to avoid, someone will recommend exercise as a way to treat or prevent it.

Well, now we can add another issue to the list. It's cognitive decline. Apparently, exercise can help us maintain sharp thinking skills and robust cognition as we age. Who couldn't use that, right?

University of California-San Francisco scientists say they've determined that the brains of physically active older adults contain a certain type of protein.

And that protein is known to enhance the connections between neurons. It also helps maintain healthy cognition.

This was even found to be true among those who eventually passed away and had toxic proteins in their brains associated with some neurodegenerative diseases.

A Groundbreaking Study

Previous studies have demonstrated a connection between brain performance and exercise among mice. But consistent results had not been obtained in human studies.

Kaitlyn Casaletto, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of neurology. She was the lead author for the study.

"Our work is the first that uses human data to show that synaptic protein regulation is related to physical activity. And may drive the beneficial cognitive outcomes we see," she said.

She teamed up for this study with Dr. William Honer, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia.

Neuron Connections Are Vital
Data they used in their study were derived from the Memory and Aging Project conducted at Rush University in Chicago, Illinois.

All of the elderly subjects in the study agreed to donate their brains for analysis following their deaths.

"Maintaining the integrity of these connections between neurons may be vital to fending off dementia, since the synapse is really the site where cognition happens," Casaletto said.

"Physical activity – a readily available tool – may help boost this synaptic functioning."

Exercise Benefits Cognitive Function

Previous to this study, Dr. Honer discovered that people with more of those same proteins in their brains at the time of their deaths had been able to "maintain cognition" while alive.

The follow-up study showed that older adults who remained active had higher levels of those proteins that made possible the exchange of information between neurons.

It was already known that exercise benefits the mind's memory center, known as the hippocampus. Researchers were pleasantly surprised to see that the benefits of exercise also extend to other regions of the brain associated with cognitive function.

Dr. Honer said, "It may be that physical activity exerts a global sustaining effect, supporting and stimulating healthy functions of proteins that facilitate synaptic transmission throughout the brain."

Proteins associated with mental decline include amyloid and tau. They tend to build up in most brains through the years. Amyloid increases first, followed by tau. But when proteins associated with exercise build up, they seem to lessen the relationship between amyloid and tau.

Physical Activity Stimulates the Brain

The National Institute on Aging has been studying the connection between exercise and cognition in older adults for many years.

They describe cognitive health simply as how well a person thinks, learns and remembers. Cognitive health can be negatively affected by age-related changes in the brain.

But their research shows that it can also be positively affected by a number of things. Including physical activity, eating healthy foods, managing blood pressure and staying connected with social activities.

One study showed that exercise stimulates the brain's ability to maintain old network connections and make new ones that are vital to cognitive health.

Other studies demonstrated that exercise increases the size of a brain structure that is key to memory and learning. Which results in better spatial memory.

Aerobic Exercise Recommended

What kind of exercises are recommended for older adults that may be associated with maintaining cognitive health? Of course, this depends on the physical condition of the adult. And all exercises should be approved in advance by a doctor.

But the physical activities include aerobic exercise including walking. Which is more closely associated with cognitive health than stretching and toning.

Others are water aerobics, including aqua jogging and leg lifts; chair yoga, which includes less stress than other forms of yoga; and resistance band workouts.

Pilates, body weight workouts and dumbbell strength training are others. Among those better avoided by many older adults are squats with weights, bench press, abdominal crunches, deadlifts, and power cleans.


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