Physical activity can improve brain functions

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Four studies that came out during the the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in mid-July show physical activity — including resistance training that includes walking — can increase cognitive functioning in various types of elderly adults.

This includes those who had mild cognitive impairment or MCI, which can in some cases be a forerunner of Alzheimer’s disease.

Four definitions will help the reader better understand the results.

“Cognition” is a group of mental processes that includes attention, memory, producing and understanding languages, solving problems, etc.

“Resistance exercises” are used to develop the strength and size of the skeletal muscles. Lifting dumbbells and walking are types of resistance training.

“Skeletal muscles” are the muscles the move your bones or skeleton.

“Balance tone” training consists of stretching, range of motion and relaxation.

In the first study done at the University of British Columbia 86 women between the ages of 70 and 80 years of age, all of whom had MCI, were divided into two groups. One group received twice weekly resistance training (RT) and the other group had balance tone training (BT) twice weekly.

The women who had RT had a 17 percent improvement in attention, conflict resolution and associative memory scores. The women in the BT group had only 2.4 percent improvement.

The second study, also done at the University of British Columbia, took elderly women who had less MCI and assigned half of them to RT and half to BT. The ones who had the RT had greater improvement than did the ones who had the BT. They also had greater improvement than the women in the first study.

The third study came from Japan from the National Center for Geriatrics and Gerontology. They looked at a group of men and women ages 65 to 93 with memory related MCI. Half were assigned to aerobic exercise (RT) and postural balance. The other half participated only in health education programs. Not surprisingly the exercise group showed significant improvement.

The final study showed a surprising result. It looked at 120 older adults with no dementia and no mental problems who had been sedentary for the previous six months. They were divided into two groups

With half starting a walking program and the other half on stretching and toning exercises. The program for both groups was for one year. The results were striking according to lead author Dr. Erickson.

The walking group had a 2 percent increase in the size of a part of the brain called the hippocampus, whereas the less active ones had a 1.5 percent decrease.

Erickson pointed out that no other treatment, including medications, had been able to achieve this result. Just getting out and walking was enough to do something no pharmaceutical treatments have done.

The hippocampus plays an important role in the consolidation of short-term memory to long-term memory and spatial navigation. In Alzheimer’s the hippocampus is one of the first regions of the brain to suffer damage.

Erickson informed attendees at the Alzheimer’s conference that a decline in cognition is preceded by changes in the brain and that a decline starts about age 30.

The purpose of the study was to see if methods could be developed to prevent or reverse the course of the atrophy of the brain. At least in this study it was shown that all it took was walking.

An added benefit was an improvement in the cardiorespiratory or heart-lung function.

Erickson’s further comment was that basically it is never too late to start an exercise program and even moderate exercise can have widespread effects on the brain.

No one should say, “I haven’t exercised before in my life so why should I start now?”

Dr. Thies, who is the chief medical and scientific officer of the Alzheimer Association, called Erickson’s work convincing. He was not involved in any of these studies, and was quoted as saying, “For all of these studies, I think if you’re at all concerned about cognitive function in the future, you really ought to figure out a way to build physical activity into your life.”

As my final note it is important to state there are people in some occupations who get plenty of physical exercise without going to a gym or spa. Even gardening can give what is considered moderate exercise if kept up for 30 minutes.

Dr. Don Casebolt of College Place is a retired physician who is passionate about preventive medicine. He spent four years as a medical officer in the U.S. Navy, the last 21/2 years as a flight surgeon. He also worked on the Navajo Reservation for 22 years.

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