As we get older, there are many things that begin to change. Our muscles get stiffer faster. Our energy levels drop and our cholesterol levels start to rise. However, one the biggest concerns for many people is the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Luckily, according to research , the solution to optimum brain health may be as simple as getting a move on.
The Exercise-Brain Connection
For years, researchers have known that there is an undeniable link between physical activity and brain health. Studies have shown that people who are physically active have a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease, as compared to those who lead a more sedentary lifestyle. Additionally, research has shown that physical activity can slow brain aging.
However, many of these studies are done retrospectively, looking at how prior activity influenced later brain health and cognition. This left Swedish researchers wondering if seniors who were currently exercising would show differences not only in cognition and memory, but also biomarkers of brain health.
To test this, they relied on the Prospective Investigation of the Vasculature in Uppsala Seniors (PIVUS) study, which was started in 2001 and includes more than 1,000 seniors aged 70 and older.
Using self-reported questionnaires, researchers classified participants’ physical activity as the number of activities performed for at least 30 minutes a week and placed them into one of four categories: very low, low, medium or high. They assessed cognitive status and brain health with several tests and took MRIs.
Researchers narrowed the study group down to 331 participants, all of whom were age 75 at the time of the MRI and who had normal cognitive function, as well as no history of stroke or neurological disease.
They found that those participants who reported more frequent physical activity scored better on the overall cognitive and verbal fluency tests. And more activity was associated with better memory performance.
Additionally, more physical activity positively correlated with greater total brain volume, as well as greater white matter volume (represents connections between processing centers in the brain). And more activity was associated with greater gray matter volume (represents information processing centers in the brain) in the areas of the brain that are normally associated with structural and functional deficits in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
Given this, researchers concluded that physical activity “represents a lifestyle component that is linked to variance in measures of brain health, such as brain volume and cognition.”
Move It or Lose It
It’s comforting to know that you can help preserve not only brain health, but also memory and cognition, simply by moving your body.
What is even more exciting is that the researchers didn’t focus on exercise per se… simply physical activity. That can mean walking, gardening, swimming, dancing, playing with grandchildren, and so on. Basically anything that gets you up off your chair or couch and out into the world.
To ensure that you keep your brain sharp, take this advice to heart. Plan to spend at least 30 minutes a day moving your body in some way. Don’t get too hung up on what that needs to be. Simply get up and do it!
 Rovio S et al. Leisure-time physical activity at midlife and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Lancet Neurol. 2005;4:705–11.
 Erickson KI et al. Physical activity predicts gray matter volume in late adulthood: the Cardiovascular Health Study. Neurology. 2010;75:1415–22.
 Benedict C et al. Association between physical activity and brain health in older adults. Neurobiol Aging. 2012 May 14. [Epub ahead of print.]