A new to study adds evidence to the argument that exercise can help preserve brain health, especially in the aging brain.
What makes this study different from most is a wrinkle in its methodology. Unlike many studies that look for a link between exercise and brain health, this one used a specific method of measuring fitness, testing participants’ maximal oxygen uptake during aerobic exercise ( known as V02 max test, it is a method recognized by the American Heart Association as an objective means of analyzing cardiovascular fitness—more reliable than people who simply self-declare how fit they think they are).
The study included 81 participants, 53 of whom had been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) – a condition characterized by problems with memory and reasoning that are not yet severe enough to interfere with self-care. According to Alzheimer Association. The other 26 healthy participants served as a control group.
All participants completed an aerobic V02 max test on a treadmill (similar to a cardio exercise test that lasts about 10 minutes). They also took memory and reasoning tests, and their brains were examined with a type of brain scan called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) that reveals brain health white matter. A growing body of research shows that the integrity of white matter – where billions of neurons are packed together – is an indication of the quality of communication between areas of the brain. As white matter breaks down with age, the highways connecting parts of the brain erode.
Two findings from the study underscore the potential importance of exercise for the aging brain. The first was that lower levels of aerobic fitness (measured by VO2 max) were linked to weaker white matter in parts of the brains of MCI participants. This was not an exhaustive brain-wide finding. In many respects, the brains of the MCI participants and the healthy control group were not significantly different, but the researchers report that the differences in white matter integrity were significant in particular brain areas involved in the “functions executive and memory”.
The second finding was that MCI participants with lower aerobic fitness and lower white matter also performed worse on memory and reasoning tests. Taken together, the results suggest that greater physical fitness is correlated with healthier white matter, which in turn is correlated with better memory and reasoning skills, even for those who already suffer from a level. of cognitive impairment.
“This research supports the hypothesis that improving people’s physical fitness can improve their brain health and slow the aging process,” said study lead author Dr. Kan Ding, neurologist at the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute.
What these findings tell us about the role exercise might play in slowing the development of Alzheimer’s disease is difficult to pinpoint. While studies like this suggest that exercising more strengthens the brain against the weakening leading to severe dementia, the definitive answers are still elusive. We don’t know, for example, how much exercise makes a difference, whether some types of exercise are better than others, or whether starting exercise later in life can prevent the progression of dementia.
What we have are strong indications that we should think about exercise and brain health the same way we think about exercise and heart health. Some of the same benefits that exercise provides to the heart, such as improved blood flow and reduced inflammation, also benefit the brain. More and more evidence along these lines continues to come in, further supporting the argument that staying active is a better policy for brain health than the alternative.
The study was published in the Alzheimer’s Disease Journal.