Many things change as we age and our minds are no exception. Forgetting where we put our keys or parked our cars is just the beginning. For some, it can get much worse as we get older. So we ask ourselves, "Is there anything I can do to stop this?" Well, it turns out that there is something you can do, but it might not be what you think. Cognitive exercises will prevent cognitive decline, right? Well...exercises yes...cognitive exercises, maybe not as much. Surprised? So was I. But research is beginning to show that physical exercise may be our best defense.
What happens to our brains when we age? According to Dr. Arthur F. Kramer of the University of Illinois "(o)lder adults show a real decline in brain density in white and gray areas." Furthermore, he suggested that "...fitness actually slows this decline." (Click here for more on Dr. Kramer's study as reported at the News Bureau of the University of Illinois) In his study of 55 people aged 55 and up, he found actual anatomical differences in the brains of those individuals who were physically fit and of those who were not. The physically fit showed less decline in brain density which translates into less cognitive decline.
Dr. Yaakov Stern leads the Cognitive Neuroscience Division at Columbia University in New York. According to a recent post at www.sharpbrains.com, Dr. Stern is a proponent of the "Cognitive Reserve Theory" which posits that those of us who have better cognitive reserves (meaning higher brain weights and more neurons) can better withstand progressive brain pathologies. This implies that, although many of us may develop some brain pathologies (such as alzheimer's disease) as we age, those of us who have better cognitive reserves will display fewer symptoms of these pathologies (click here to read the interview with Dr. Stern) In fact, Dr. Stern has been designing studies to see what kinds of exercise might stave off cognitive decline as we age and the results have been surprising. As in Dr. Kramer's study, there is some evidence to suggest that physical exercise may actually be of the most benefit over time.
In a MORE magazine (More) article called "Jogging Your Memory" (March 2008), Dr. Stern attributes the benefits of aerobic exercise to a brain chemical called "Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor" (BDNF) that helps with learning. It seems that physical exercise, aerobic exercise in particular, produces significant amounts of this chemical. Aging affects the frontal lobes of the brain, the area that helps us to multi-task. Over time, fewer and fewer brain cells are produced in this area to replace the ones that are dying off. This leads to cognitive decline. BDNF, which is produced when we engage in aerobic exercise, supports the survival of the cells in our frontal lobes and that helps us to multi-task and think more clearly. The end result? More confirmation that exercise, specifically aerobic exercise, may be one of the best ways to significantly slow down the mental decline that comes with age.
Now there has been a lot of publicity lately around the use of mental exercises to improve the functioning of the aging brain. People are using everything from crossword puzzles to hand-held computer games to specially-designed computer software to exercise their brains and improve their memories. Is it all for naught? No, this type of mental activity does have some benefit. Many of these tools do improve memory, but according to a study called "Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly" also highlighted in the MORE Magazine article, such tools often only improve memory that is specific to the objects or events used in the training. The cognitive training did not slow the rate of general memory loss. Is it still worth pursuing? Perhaps, but research is pointing in another direction for those of us who want to prevent the general memory loss and cognitive decline that comes with age. Change may be inevitable as we get older, but there are things that we can do to improve the quality of our lives. Playing memory games, reading, learning new things and social interaction all have a part to play in our efforts to stay mentally sharp. But if you want to stay mentally fit, becoming physically fit may be the best answer.
Yes indeed...one more good reason to exercise. As if you didn't have enough already. For those of you who are already incorporating exercise into your lives, keep up the good work! As for the rest of you, well, maybe it's time. If you need help and inspiration in your efforts to get started with an exercise program, check out my earlier post "Exercise - An Idea Whose Time Has Come." You might also want to check out the fitness carnival at www.fitbuff.com/total-mind-and-body-fitness-blog-carnival-38/ for articles on exercise and fitness by this author and others. As always, feel free to post any questions or comments.