Exercise Has Big Role in Brain Health (Including Staving Off Alzheimer's Disease)

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Exercise has been touted to help lower blood pressure, manage Type 2 diabetes, and ease chronic pain. But recent research also points to the benefits of exercise to brain health and, importantly for the many Baby Boomers who are entering the “danger zone,” to staving off Alzheimer’s disease. This last bit of information is critically important as evidenced by my recent sharepost on a report released by the Lewin Group this summer. This report found that if nothing changes in treatments available to people with Alzheimer’s, the number of people with Alzheimer’s will increase from 5.1 million in 2010 to 13.5 million in 2050.  Because of this tremendous increase, annual Medicare costs are projected to increase from $34 billion currently to $178 billion by 2050.

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    The research by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee scientists found that physical activity promoted changes in the brain among study participants included people who have a high-risk gene for Alzheimer’s disease as well as healthy older participants who did not have the gene, according to Medical News Today.  Interestingly, the study found that exercise benefits may be even greater for those people who are at genetic risk of Alzheimer’s.


    In this study, researchers followed healthy individuals who were ages 65-86. The participants were divided into four groups based on whether or not they had the gene that leads to Alzheimer’s disease as well as their self-reports on the frequency and level of physical activity. The participants then had MRIs to measure brain activation while performing a mental task.


    When analyzing the groups comprised of individuals who carried the Alzheimer’s gene, the researchers found individuals who exercised regularly had greater brain activity in areas responsible for memory than those who were sedentary. Surprisingly, the scientists determined that participants who were physically active and who had the gene showed greater brain activity than the participants who were physically active, but who did not have the Alzheimer’s gene.


    And even if you’re not worried about Alzheimer’s, studies have found that regular exercise is very important for your brain health. Science Daily.com reported research findings in which elderly adults who were more physically fit had larger hippocampus areas as well as better spatial memory. That’s important because the hippocampus, which is located inside the medial temporal lobe of the brain, is essential to memory formation, spatial navigation, and other types of relational memory. The study found that hippocampus size in physically fit adults accounted for approximately 40% of their advantage in spatial memory.
    The researchers from the University of Illinois and the University of Pittsburg measured the cardio-respiratory fitness of 165 adults who were 59-81 years of age. The hippocampus areas of the study’s participants, of whom 108 were female, were then tested using magnetic resonance imaging. In addition, the participants’ spatial reasoning was analyzed. The researchers found a significant association between fitness levels and a person’s performance on some spatial memory tests. In addition, a strong correlation existed between fitness and hippocampus size.


  • The Science Daily.com article notes that while certain activities – such as studying for exams – may increase the hippocampus’ size, other studies have found that this portion of the brain shrinks with age, although the rate varies by individual. In addition, this shrinkage tends to coincide with tiny but significant cognitive declines. University of Illinois researcher Dr. Art Kramer, who co-led the study, noted that impairment of spatial memory is one of the top reasons why older people lose their independence.

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    So what’s the take home from these studies? As far as I’m concerned (especially since Alzheimer’s disease tends to run in one side of my family), exercise needs to be a regular part of my life. So I’m planning on keeping those cross-trainers close by so I can grab an exercise class, walk my dog, or go biking over the holidays.

Published On: December 07, 2010