New study links exercise with better cognition

group of older people jogging in park

It’s long been accepted that physical exercise plays an important part in keeping your body functioning and healthy as you age. The adage ‘use it or lose it’ rings true for many over-50s.

Now, evidence suggests that keeping yourself moving plays an important part in keeping your brain healthy, too.

A University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) study indicates that older people who stay active produce higher levels of a class of proteins that protect the synapses, the pathways between our brain’s neurons that assist with cognition.

Assistant professor of neurology at UCSF Kaitlin Casaletto says that a new study “uses human data to show that synaptic protein regulation is related to physical activity and may drive the beneficial cognitive outcomes we see”.

Read: Studies show afternoon naps can improve cognitive function

Ass. Prof. Casaletto is a co-author of the study, which appeared in the 7 January edition of Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.

The study, written in conjunction with William Honer, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia (UBC), found that “physical activity – a readily available tool – may help boost … synaptic functioning”.

With the synapses playing an important role in cognition, the study points to exercise playing a vital part in staving off dementia.

The research follows earlier studies that indicated links between exercise and memory improvement, and between exercise and a lower risk of depression.

An earlier UBC study found that aerobic exercise appears to lead to an increase in the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning and verbal memory. Interestingly, other forms of exercise, such as resistance and balance training did not lead to the same increase in size.

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How can physical exercise improve brain function?
Hormones are the key to answering that question. In a 2018 article, published in Scientific American, Brock Armstrong, the magazine’s ‘Get-Fit Guy’ explained that, as well as increasing heart rate, which pumps more oxygen to the brain, exercise also aids the release of hormones, providing an excellent environment for the growth of brain cells.

“Exercise also promotes brain plasticity by stimulating growth of new connections between cells in many important cortical areas of the brain. Research from UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) even demonstrated that exercise increased growth factors in the brain, which makes it easier for the brain to grow new neuronal connections.”

The release of these ‘good’ hormones also correlates with a drop in stress hormones, an effect strongly linked to the antidepressant effects of aerobic exercises such as running. A 2005 Swedish study indicates that the suppression of cell proliferation in the hippocampus could be a factor in the cause of depression.

Exercise has been linked to an increase in cell proliferation in the hippocampal region, and thus may play an important role in preventing depression.

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How much exercise do you need each day?
Australian guidelines recommend adults do at least 30 minutes of moderate to intensive physical activity on most or all days of the week. This does not have to be achieved in a single session. Multiple shorter sessions (10 or 15 minutes each) provide similar benefits.

The benefits of exercise extend well beyond the brain, of course. It is also linked to a reduction in the risk of illnesses such as heart and lung disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, cancer and Parkinson’s disease, as well as assisting in stroke recovery.

How has exercise helped you? Are you more motivated to get moving or have you always seen the benefits of exercise? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?

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