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How Exercise Helps Memory As You Age

Exercise can help you live younger, and now a new study indicates it also may keep your memory sharp as you age.

The study, conducted by Boston University researchers, involved older adults age 55 to 74 and younger adults age 18 to 31. Researchers had study participants walk and jog on a treadmill and assessed their cardiorespiratory (heart and lung) fitness. The participants also underwent MRI scans to see how well they learned and remembered the names of unfamiliar people in pictures.

Not surprisingly, the older adults had more difficulty remembering the names than younger study participants. The MRI scans indicated that older adults activated certain regions of their brain to remember the names, while other regions had decreased brain activation. However, those who had a higher level of cardiovascular fitness had better memory and more brain activation than those in the same age category who weren’t as fit. Fit older adults also had more activity in areas of the brain commonly associated with age-related decline — they even had more brain activity in some regions than their younger counterparts.

What does all this suggest?

The study indicated exercise may play a critical role in keeping the brain sharp and maintaining memory as people get older. As we’ve previously discussed on the blog, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are a real risk for seniors, as more than 5 million Americans currently live with this disease. Research has demonstrated exercise can have a positive impact on memory and brain function. One study conducted by researchers at Cambridge University in England showed that just one hour of exercise a week may reduce a person’s risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s by 50 percent. Exercise also can reduce the likelihood that people with a family history of Alzheimer’s will develop the disease. Why? Because physical activity encourages new capillaries to form that deliver nutrients and oxygen to the brain. It also helps the brain create new cells that stem memory and brain function decline as you get older.

However, the study’s researcher say although exercise may slow the brain decline associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s, it may not “entirely eliminate or cure age- or Alzheimer’s disease-related decline.” Also, the study indicates only a link between exercise and brain health, not a direct cause-and-effect relationship. More research will need to be done to determine this relationship and how physical activity affects brain health in older adults as they age.

Still, researchers say the study provides evidence that heart and lung fitness is important for maintaining brain function and memory, as well as physical health.

“Importantly, CRF [cardiorespiratory fitness] is a modifiable health factor that can be improved through regular engagement in moderate to vigorous sustained physical activity such as walking, jogging, swimming, or dancing. Therefore, starting an exercise program, regardless of one’s age, can not only contribute to the more obvious physical health factors, but may also contribute to memory performance and brain function,” said Scott Hayes, PhD, one of the study’s authors and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine.

If you don’t regularly exercise, start doing so as soon as you can. Go for a 15-minute walk around your neighborhood, lift 2 or 3-pound weights while you sit in a chair watching television or participate in water aerobics at a local fitness center (this is a great activity for seniors since it doesn’t put too much pressure on the joints).

Do whatever your body allows you to do, without risking injury. And do an activity you enjoy, because this will improve the odds you stick with it. The most important thing is to just start exercising. Even a little bit of physical activity goes a long way.

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