Studies have shown that exercise helps protect brain cells. A new study looking at the mechanisms involved in this relationship suggests that the role exercise plays in maintaining insulin and body mass index levels may help protect brain volume and thus help stave off dementia. The research is published in the April 13, 2022, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
“These results may help us to understand how physical activity affects brain health, which may guide us in developing strategies to prevent or delay age-related decline in memory and thinking skills,” said study author Géraldine Poisnel, PhD, of Inserm Research Center in Caen, France. “Older adults who are physically active gain cardiovascular benefits, which may result in greater structural brain integrity.”
In contrast, researchers found that the relationship between exercise and the metabolism of glucose in the brain was not affected by insulin or body mass index (BMI) levels. Reduced glucose metabolism in the brain can been seen in people with dementia.
One in 10 adults in the United States struggles with depression, and antidepressant medications are a common way to treat the condition. However, pills aren’t the only solution. Research shows that exercise is also an effective treatment. “For some people it works as well as antidepressants, although exercise alone isn’t enough for someone with severe depression,” says Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
The exercise effect
Exercising starts a biological cascade of events that results in many health benefits, such as protecting against heart disease and diabetes, improving sleep, and lowering blood pressure. High-intensity exercise releases the body’s feel-good chemicals called endorphins, resulting in the “runner’s high” that joggers report. But for most of us, the real value is in low-intensity exercise sustained over time. That kind of activity spurs the release of proteins called neurotrophic or growth factors, which cause nerve cells to grow and make new connections. The improvement in brain function makes you feel better. “In people who are depressed, neuroscientists have noticed that the hippocampus in the brain—the region that helps regulate mood—is smaller. Exercise supports nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, improving nerve cell connections, which helps relieve depression,” explains Dr. Miller.
The challenge of getting started
Depression manifests physically by causing disturbed sleep, reduced energy, appetite changes, body aches, and increased pain perception, all of which can result in less motivation to exercise. It’s a hard cycle to break, but Dr. Miller says getting up and moving just a little bit will help. “Start with five minutes a day of walking or any activity you enjoy. Soon, five minutes of activity will become 10, and 10 will become 15.”
What you can do
It’s unclear how long you need to exercise, or how intensely, before nerve cell improvement begins alleviating depression symptoms. You should begin to feel better a few weeks after you begin exercising. But this is a long-term treatment, not a onetime fix. “Pick something you can sustain over time,” advises Dr. Miller. “The key is to make it something you like and something that you’ll want to keep doing.”
On imaging tests, brains were larger (the brain usually shrinks in size with increasing age and health conditions) and showed fewer signs of injury in early to late middle-aged people (ages 40-69 years) who had higher scores for cardiovascular health.
An analysis of more than 35,000 adults with no history of stroke or dementia found that maintaining good cardiovascular health, in addition to protecting against heart attack and stroke, appeared to also be beneficial to overall brain health.
On imaging tests, brains were larger and showed fewer signs of injury in early to late middle-aged adults (ages 40-69 years) who had nearly ideal cardiovascular health, according to preliminary research to be presented at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference 2022, a world premier meeting for researchers and clinicians dedicated to the science of stroke and brain health to be held in person in New Orleans and virtually, Feb. 8-11, 2022.
New research led by the University of Kent and University of Reading has found that fruit and vegetable consumption as well as exercise can increase levels of happiness.
While the link between lifestyle and well being has been previously documented and often used in public health campaigns to encourage healthier diets and exercise, new findings published by the Journal of Happiness Studies show that there is also a positive causation from lifestyle to life satisfaction.
This research is the first of its kind to unravel the causation of how happiness, the consumption of fruit and vegetables and exercising are related, rather than generalizing a correlation. The researchers, Dr Adelina Gschwandtner (Kent’s School of Economics), Dr Sarah Jewell and Professor Uma Kambhampati (both from the University of Reading’s School of Economics), used an instrumental variable approach to filter out any effect from happiness to lifestyle. It showed that it is rather the consumption of fruit and vegetables and exercising that makes people happy and not the other way round.
People who feel younger have a greater sense of well-being, better cognitive functioning, less inflammation, lower risk of hospitalization and even live longer than their older-feeling peers. A study published by the American Psychological Association suggests one potential reason for the link between subjective age and health: Feeling younger could help buffer middle-aged and older adults against the damaging effects of stress.
In the study, published in Psychology and Aging, researchers from the German Centre of Gerontology analyzed three years of data from 5,039 participants in the German Ageing Survey, a longitudinal survey of residents of Germany age 40 and older. The survey included questions about the amount of perceived stress in peoples’ lives and their functional health – how much they were limited in daily activities such as walking, dressing and bathing. Participants also indicated their subjective age by answering the question, “How old do you feel?”
The researchers found, on average, participants who reported more stress in their lives experienced a steeper decline in functional health over three years, and that link between stress and functional health decline was stronger for chronologically older participants.
However, subjective age seemed to provide a protective buffer. Among people who felt younger than their chronological age, the link between stress and declines in functional health was weaker. That protective effect was strongest among the oldest participants.
Primary care clinics can play an important role in preserving patients’ brain health using the American Heart Association’s Life’s Simple 7 as a guide, as well as addressing six other factors associated with cognitive decline, according to a new American Stroke Association/American Heart Association Scientific Statement, “A Primary Care Agenda for Brain Health.
The statement was published in the Association’s journal Stroke. Led by researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, it has been endorsed by the American Academy of Neurology as an educational tool for neurologists.
Preserving brain health in an aging population is a growing concern in the United States. An estimated one in five Americans 65 years and older has mild cognitive impairment, and one in seven has dementia. By 2050, the number of Americans with dementia is expected to triple, the statement authors note.
“Primary care is the right home for practice-based efforts to prevent or postpone cognitive decline. Primary care professionals are most likely to identify and monitor risk factors early and throughout the lifespan,” said the chair of the scientific statement writing group, Ronald M. Lazar, Ph.D., the Evelyn F. McKnight Endowed Chair for Learning and Memory in Aging and director of the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute at the UAB School of Medicine. “Prevention doesn’t start in older age; it exists along the health care continuum from pediatrics to adulthood. The evidence in this statement demonstrates that early attention to these factors improves later life outcomes.”
Simple, but not so easy, at least for some of us …. The following infographic is from the National Institute on Aging. While it doesn’t tell you anything you don’t already know, I think it is worthwhile to see these items enumerated to impress our minds – and bodies – what gives us the best chance of having a long and healthy life.
A study from North Carolina State University found outdoor play and nature-based activities helped buffer some of the negative mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic for adolescents.
Researchers said the findings, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, point to outdoor play and nature-based activities as a tool to help teenagers cope with major stressors like the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as future natural disasters and other global stressors. Researchers also underscore the mental health implications of restricting outdoor recreation opportunities for adolescents, and the need to increase access to the outdoors.
“Families should be encouraged that building patterns in outdoor recreation can give kids tools to weather the storms to come,” said Kathryn Stevenson, a study co-author and assistant professor of parks, recreation and tourism management at NC State. “Things happen in life, and getting kids outside regularly is an easy way to build some mental resilience.”
Exercise may reduce decline in global cognition in older adults with mild-to-moderate AD dementia. Aerobic exercise did not show superior cognitive effects to stretching in our pilot trial, possibly due to the lack of power. ASU Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation Professor Fang Yu led a pilot randomized control trial that included 96 older adults living with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s dementia.
Participants were randomized to either a cycling (stationary bike) or stretching intervention for six months. Using the Alzheimer’s Disease Assessment Scale-Cognition (ADAS-Cog) to assess cognition, the results of the trial were substantial.
The six-month change in ADAS-Cog was 1.0±4.6 (cycling) and 0.1±4.1 (stretching), which were both significantly less than the expected 3.2±6.3-point increase observed naturally with disease progression.
“Our primary finding indicates that a six-month aerobic exercise intervention significantly reduced cognitive decline in comparison to the natural course of changes for Alzheimer’s dementia. However, we didn’t find a superior effect of aerobic exercise to stretching, which is likely due to the pilot nature of our trial. We don’t have the statistical power to detect between-group differences, there was substantial social interaction effect in the stretching group, and many stretching participants did aerobic exercise on their own.” Yu said.
The findings are described in a recently published article, Cognitive Effects of Aerobic Exercise in Alzheimer’s Disease: A Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial, in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Yu says their results are encouraging and support the clinical relevance of promoting aerobic exercise in individuals with Alzheimer’s dementia to maintain cognition.
“Aerobic exercise has a low profile of adverse events in older adults with Alzheimer’s dementia as demonstrated by our trial,” said Yu. “Regardless of its effect on cognition, the current collective evidence on its benefits supports the use of aerobic exercise as an additional therapy for Alzheimer’s disease.”
Although exercise is known to enhance cognitive function and improve mental health, the neurological mechanisms of this link are unknown. Now, researchers from Japan have found evidence of the missing link between aerobic fitness and cognitive function.
In a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers from the University of Tsukuba revealed that spontaneous eye blink rate (sEBR), which reflects activity of the dopamine system, could be used to understand the connection between cognitive function and aerobic fitness.
The dopaminergic system is known to be involved in physical activity and exercise, and previous researchers have proposed that exercise-induced changes in cognitive function might be mediated by activity in the dopaminergic system. However, a marker of activity in this system was needed to test this hypothesis, something the researchers at the University of Tsukuba aimed to address.
“The dopaminergic system is associated with both executive function and motivated behavior, including physical activity,” says first author of the study Ryuta Kuwamizu. “We used sEBR as a non-invasive measure of dopaminergic system function to test whether it could be the missing link between aerobic fitness and cognitive function.”
To do this, the researchers asked healthy participants to undergo a measure of sEBR, a test of cognitive function, and an aerobic fitness test. They also measured brain activity during the cognitive task using functional near-infrared spectroscopy.
“As expected, we found significant correlations between aerobic fitness, cognitive function, and sEBR,” explains Professor Hideaki Soya, senior author. “When we examined these relationships further, we found that the connection between higher aerobic fitness and enhanced cognitive function was mediated in part by dopaminergic regulation.”
Furthermore, activity in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (l-DLPFC) during the cognitive task was the same or lower in participants with higher sEBR compared with lower sEBR, even though those with higher sEBR appeared to have greater executive function, and thus higher neural efficiency.
“Although previous studies have indicated that aerobic fitness and cognitive function are correlated, this is the first to provide a neuromodulatory basis for this connection in humans. Our data indicate that dopamine has an essential role in linking aerobic fitness and cognition,” says first author Kuwamizu.
Given that neural efficiency in the l-DLPFC is a known characteristic of the dopaminergic system that has been observed in individuals with higher fitness and executive function, it is possible that neural efficiency in this region partially mediates the association between aerobic fitness and executive function. Furthermore, physical inactivity may be related to dopaminergic dysfunction. This information provides new directions for research regarding how fitness affects the brain, which may lead to improved exercise regimens. For instance, exercise that specifically focuses on improving dopaminergic function may particularly boost motivation, mood, and mental function.
Of all the lifestyle changes that have been studied, taking regular physical exercise appears to be one of the best things that you can do to reduce your risk of getting dementia according to the Alzheimer’s Society.
Several studies looking at the effect of aerobic exercise (exercise that increases your heart rate) in middle-aged or older adults have reported improvements in thinking and memory, and reduced rates of dementia.
Exercising in mid-life
Prospective studies follow the health and behavior of a group of people over time. Several prospective studies have looked at middle-aged people and the effects of physical exercise on their thinking and memory in later life. Combining the results of 11 studies shows that regular exercise can significantly reduce the risk of developing dementia by about 30 per cent. For Alzheimer’s disease specifically, the risk was reduced by 45 per cent.
Eat less; move more; live longer has been the mantra of this blog for years. It may be that think better can be added to it.
If sport is good for the body, it also seems to be good for the brain. By evaluating memory performance following a sport session, neuroscientists from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) demonstrate that an intensive physical exercise session as short as 15 minutes on a bicycle improves memory, including the acquisition of new motor skills. How? Through the action of endocanabinoids, molecules known to increase synaptic plasticity. This study, to be read in the journal Scientific Reports, highlights the virtues of sport for both health and education. School programmes and strategies aimed at reducing the effects of neurodegeneration on memory could indeed benefit from it.
A common school-age stereotype is that smart kids are unathletic. However, as a recent study lead by Associate Professor Keita Kamijo at the University of Tsukuba and Assistant Professor Toru Ishihara at Kobe University shows that physical activity is linked to better cognitive ability, which is in turn related to academic performance in school.
Understanding the effects of physical activity on cognition has been difficult for several reasons. “Previous studies looked at the issue too broadly,” explains Professor Kamijo, “When we broke down the data, we were able to see that physical activity helps children the most if they start out with poor executive function.”
Executive functions refer to three types of cognitive skills. The first is the ability to suppress impulses and inhibit reflex-like behaviors or habits. To assess this ability, children were asked to indicate the color in which words like “red” and “blue” were displayed on a computer screen. This is easy when the words and colors match (“red” displayed in red font), but often requires inhibition of a reflex response when they don’t (“red” displayed in blue font). The second skill is the ability to hold information in working memory and process it. This was evaluated by testing how well children could remember strings of letters that vary in length. The third cognitive skill is mental flexibility. This was measured by asking children to frequently switch the rules for categorizing colored circles and squares from shape-based to color-based.
It’s never too late to lace up some sneakers and work up a sweat for brain health, according to a study published in the May 13, 2020, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. The study suggests older adults, even couch potatoes, may perform better on certain thinking and memory tests after just six months of aerobic exercise.
“As we all find out eventually, we lose a bit mentally and physically as we age. But even if you start an exercise program later in life, the benefit to your brain may be immense,” said study author Marc J. Poulin, Ph.D., D.Phil., from the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. “Sure, aerobic exercise gets blood moving through your body. As our study found, it may also get blood moving to your brain, particularly in areas responsible for verbal fluency and executive functions. Our finding may be important, especially for older adults at risk for Alzheimer’s and other dementias and brain disease.”
A little-studied liver protein may be responsible for the well-known benefits of exercise on the aging brain, according to a new study in mice by scientists in the UC San Francisco Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research. The findings could lead to new therapies to confer the neuroprotective effects of physical activity on people who are unable to exercise due to physical limitations.
Exercise is one of the best-studied and most powerful ways of protecting the brain from age-related cognitive decline and has been shown to improve cognition in individuals at risk of neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s disease and frontotemporal dementia — even those with rare gene variants that inevitably lead to dementia.
Did you get your 10,000 steps today? Many people have adopted this daily walking goal to obtain the recommended amount of physical activity. The 10,000-steps-a-day number comes from the Japanese brand name of a pedometer manufactured in the 1960s, the “10,000 steps meter.” In the Fitbit era, counting daily steps remains appealing to many people as a source of motivation.
In the US, adults are urged to get the equivalent of 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity exercise. Walking is a popular way to meet those recommendations, particularly in older adults or people who are relatively physically inactive.
Although 10,000 steps is a worthy challenge, aiming for more exercise than you normally get—unless you are one of the few who regularly trains for marathons or triathlons—comes with benefits. Any amount or type of physical activity adds to your daily goal. Regularly taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or parking farther away from your destination, can make a measurable improvement in your health.