Exercise Improves Longterm Brain Function + Helps Ward Off Dementia

I’ve known for a long time that exercise has a positive effect on our minds…helping to keep us happy and mentally sharp over time. However, new research shows that exercise does in fact keep our brains healthier as we age, helping to both strengthen neural-function AND ward off brain and memory related issues, such as dementia.

In fact, for more than a decade, doctors and scientists have been gathering evidence showing the positive relationship between exercise and longterm brainpower, specifically the role that exercise plays in maintaining healthy brain function, such as maintaining mental clarity and warding off dementia.

New research shows that elderly individuals who reported exercising for 30 minutes at least 3 times a week have nearly a 60% lower risk of developing vascular dementia than compared to sedentary individuals.

The Exercise-Dementia Study

A 3-year study was conducted that included 639 elderly individuals at an average age of 74, all without disability and living independently. About two-thirds (430) of the participants in the study said they exercised for 30 minutes a day three times a week.

After 3 years of follow up, the study showed that the individuals who exercised regurarly reduced their risk for vascular dementia by nearly 60%. Furthermore, they showed significant resistance to developing problems with thinking skills or dementia than the participants who engaged in a more sedentary lifestyle. *source: WebMD

To me, this is an important aspect of wellness to expand upon, as our population grows more sedentary and our attention spans continue to dwindle due to constant distractions and over stimulation. The good news is that this new research indicates that a simple remedy of steady exercise can have a very positive effect on building a brain that resists physical shrinkage, and enhances cognitive function and flexibility. As the latest neuroscience suggests, exercise does more to strengthen thinking than thinking does.

How Exercise Strengthens Our Brains

The brain is an organ made of tissue, the same as all muscles and organs in the body, and, as with all organs, it’s ability to function properly declines with underuse and age.

Originally, scientists thought that we were all born with a set number of brain cells (neurons), and that our bodies did not create more, only losing brain cells as we age. However, we now know this is not true…research performed during the 1990’s showed scientists that our bodies do create more new neurons (this act is termed: neurogenesis). These new neurons are mainly present in the hippocampus area of the brain, which is the part responsible for both short and longterm memory.

This new finding sparked several studies to find out how our bodies stimulate grow and acclimate to newly formed neurons. What they found was that exercise, above all else, helps to increase neurogenesis and thus increase new neuron development. However, their most important finding is in how the exercise helps the new neurons to acclimate:

But it was the ineffable effect that exercise had on the functioning of the newly formed neurons that was most startling. Brain cells can improve intellect only if they join the existing neural network, and many do not, instead rattling aimlessly around in the brain for a while before dying.

Exercise, on the other hand, seems to make neurons nimble. When researchers in a separate study had mice run, the animals’ brains readily wired many new neurons into the neural network. But those neurons didn’t fire later only during running. They also lighted up when the animals practiced cognitive skills, like exploring unfamiliar environments. In the mice, running, unlike learning, had created brain cells that could multitask.

*source: NYTimes.com

Furthermore, research suggests that exercise increases brain-derived neurotropic factor (B.D.N.F.), which is a substance found in the bloodstream that has shown to strengthen cells and axons, as well as increase neurogenesis and build a stronger connection between neurons.

What To Take Away…

I wanted to share this new research with you, not only to further the argument that exercise is needed at every age/stage of life, but rather to shift focus away from the vanity aspects of how exercise can make you look, and instead focus on how exercise can make you feel…ALIVE.

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