It’s long be said; strong body, strong mind. And that’s certainly true. While medicine separates the body into different organs, there’s no denying everything is connected. When your body’s tired, overworked or sick, it’s hard to think, remember and process information. In contrast, when you’re body’s healthy and strong, you think better too. So what is the connection between exercise and the brain?
Brain Function as We Age
We often think of a decline in brain function and dementia as conditions of older adults. Indeed, for people 65 years and older, approximately 10% have dementia. This goes up to 30% in people over 85 years. But like any chronic disease, the foundations occur at a much younger age. Cognitive decline, challenges with remembering, making decisions and concentrating, can be measured in people as young as in their 20s and 30s.
When we age, our memory slows down. Recalling facts is harder and you might be more easily distracted, unable to focus as you once did. Processing information becomes harder. At the same time, your brain undergoes physical changes, such as getting smaller. Neurons shrink and the creation of new neurons slows down. Levels of neurotransmitters and their receptors decrease as well.
Cognitive decline with age, to some extent is natural. Too much of it, though, may indicate mild cognitive impairment, which may lead to dementia. Dementia is used to describe a general decline in mental function such that it interferes with your daily life. Starting from barely noticeable lapses in memory and speed of thinking, to difficulty reasoning, communicating and changes in mood. It can progress to where regular daily activities are no longer possible. Ultimately, dementia can lead to early death and is a top five leading cause of death worldwide.
The changes our brain goes through with age, mirror in some ways, changes occurring in our muscles. With age our muscles get smaller and our fitness declines. However, people who remain active through their entire life, tend to have less decline in fitness than those who are inactive. This suggests much of the decline in fitness with age, may be due to more than just getting older. Is the same true for your brain?
How Exercise Benefits the Brain
While you may not notice changes in fitness after a single bout of exercise, you can in your brain. After one session of exercise, learning and memory improve. And it can happen even with a session as short as two minutes of vigorous exercise. Exercise can improve your ability to learn and remember new skills. Even one week later, retention of new skills was higher in those who exercised. Exercise also spurs creativity.
The effects of exercise also add up. Children who performed exercise sessions twice over the day had better attention and focus compared to children who had just one session. Over weeks to months, regular exercise improves cognitive function. It doesn’t seem to matter what type of exercise it is, whether it’s cycling, walking, running or even dancing. Improvements also tend to be greater in higher intensity compared to moderate intensity activity.
Exercise benefits the brain in a number of ways. It leads to an increase in brain derived neurotrophic factor (low levels are associated with increased chances for dementia). Exercise has also been shown to increase the creation of neurotransmitters, brain volume and ability for the brain to develop. These benefits are supported by studies using MRI. After exercise, the MRI indicates higher activity in the memory function areas of the brain.
Exercise and Preventing Dementia
Whether the long-term effects of exercise can prevent or delay dementia is not clear. In a study of five healthy behaviours in middle-aged men, regular exercise was associated with the lowest chance for cognitive decline. However, a larger, more recent study did not find an effect of regular activity.
It’s possible the risk for dementia may be linked more to fitness than activity levels. While the two are closely related, they’re not exactly the same. In women, higher fitness was associated with lower chances of dementia over 44 years and resulted in a delay in dementia by nearly ten years. Another study found people who went from low to high fitness categories over ten years had a 48% and 28% lower chance of getting dementia or early death compared to people whose fitness stayed low. These results are also consistent with the above studies indicating greater benefits at a greater intensity.
So if you’re struggling with that Sudoku puzzle, or studying for an exam, get out for some exercise. You’ll come back better able to complete your task and over time, you’ll be lowering your chances for dementia later on.
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