Kiri Cole

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Avoid Cognitive Impairment as You Age

Aerobic exercise improves brain functioning at all ages. Staying active is critically important for the elderly, however, as  
cognitive decline is most commonly observed in seniors, who are also less likely to regularly workout. So, if you desire 
to stay sharp and coherent as those gray hairs grow and multiply, aerobic exercise is vital.  

Understanding the link between exercise and the mind requires first examining it. The brain is composed of grey and 
white matter. The former is comprised of nerve cells; the latter consists of nerve fibers and myelin. The myelin is a fatty 
sheath that wraps around the nerve fibers, which create connections between nerve cells. The myelin serves to insulate 
the nerve fibers and accelerate brain impulses. 

Generally speaking, the brain tends to atrophy with age, at a rate of about 5% per decade after age 40. Research shows that these changes are largely due to the diminishing integrity of the grey and white matter. Such changes negatively affect cognition and memory, causing impairments in an elderly person’s ability to process information quickly, competently perform executive functions, and remember. 

Consequently, there is a chance that your brain will become compromised as you mature. Nevertheless, serious mental decline does not need to accompany aging. Research shows that a healthy diet, low to moderate alcohol consumption, regular mental stimulation and other lifestyle variables can keep your brain robust and healthy into your golden years. As aforementioned, the research presented today, however, focuses on the importance of aerobic exercise to safeguard your mind’s integrity. 

A study published in The Journals of Gerontology indicates that aerobic exercise increases grey and white matter volume in seniors. Healthy, but sedentary adults between the ages of 60 and 79 participated in a six month study and were divided into 2 factions – an aerobic and anaerobic training group. After the allotted time, the results showed that those in the aerobic group experienced significant increases in brain volume in both grey and white matter.  

Similarly, the journal Nature provides research supporting enhanced cognitive functioning as a result of aerobic exercise. This study included sedentary seniors, ages 60 to 75, and took place over six months. Again, these study participants were divided into either an aerobic or anaerobic group. The two groups were tested on executive control processes, such as planning, scheduling, switching tasks, and working memory, before and after the six month exercise training. Research results showed that unlike the anaerobic cohort, which did not exhibit any positive changes, the aerobic group demonstrated significant progress on tasks requiring executive control, as much as a 25% improvement.

Aerobic exercise even enhances memory. As mentioned earlier, the brain can shrink with age. This process affects the hippocampus, which is a sea-horse shaped organ located near the center of the brain that controls long-term memory. As such, its malfunctioning can increase the chances of dementia, a general term that describes a decline in mental ability that hinders normal daily functioning. Research in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that aerobic exercise increased the production of the protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in study subjects. BDNF facilitates the growth, development, maturation, and maintenance of nerve cells and connections in the brain and protects their integrity and is involved with memory and learning. As such, among study participants, these higher levels of BDNF were accompanied by increases in the size of their hippocampi by 2%, effectively reversing age-related loss in volume by about 2 years, and by significant memory improvements. 

Numerous other studies show that exercise reduces or reverses dementia and mental decline in the elderly. Aerobic activity even enhances adolescent cognitive performance. A large Swedish study including more than 1M subjects demonstrated that changes in cardiovascular physical activity between 15 and 18 years old predicted cognitive performance at 18 years of age, with higher levels of cardiovascular fitness associated with greater intelligence.  

Various biological factors can explain the phenomena that these studies present, besides BDNF. Through an intricate network of blood vessels, the brain receives a steady supply of nutrients and oxygen in order for it to function optimally. Researchers assert that exercise increases the number of blood vessels that supply blood to the brain as well as the number of connections between nerve cells, encouraging mental acuity. Additionally, aerobic activity reduces the risk of obesity and diabetes, conditions that disturb the brain’s insulin system and can lead to the accumulation of plaque in the brain that is linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Plus, aerobic exercise triggers the release of “feel good” neurotransmitters – serotonin, noradrenaline, and dopamine – that help control signaling in the brain. Researchers continue to conduct studies to discover mechanisms that help explain the positive connection between exercise and a sound mind.

Mental shrewdness is crucial at all ages, but is particularly a concern for the elderly who are more susceptible to experiencing cognitive impairments. Dementia is ravishing the nation, with Alzheimer’s accounting for 60% to 80% of all cases. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Alzheimer’s is the 6th leading cause of death in the US.

Consider this on those occasions when lacing up your running shoes seems like a herculean task. Cardiovascular fitness will not only shrink your waistline, but will also keep your brain healthy and vital so that you can fully experience your golden years.

Additional References