The prevalence of cognitive impairment continues to grow as our population is able to live longer but increasingly becomes more sedentary. The increases of mild cognitive impairment and dementia (Alzheimer’s disease included) are becoming societal concerns. Vast amounts of research are being dedicated to understanding what causes cognitive impairments, what markers to look for in the various cognition challenges and how best to combat the onset of disease progressions.
Many human trial studies have looked at the benefits different forms of exercise have on our brains, both cardiovascular and resistance training. We know that our brains begin to atrophy usually in the 3rd decade of life. Age related changes do occur, causing challenges with multi-tasking, performing tasks of daily living, slower reaction speeds and slower information processing (1). Many times, what is seen in brain atrophy is mass reduction of our hippocampus (2). The hippocampus helps control our emotions, memory and autonomic nervous system. With the hippocampus being afflicted, alterations with our brain function occur.
As our nation grows more sedentary, researchers are looking at cardiovascular disease risk factors as lead-ins to cognitive issues. For this reason cardiovascular exercise is being studied for its positive effects not just on our heart and lungs, but also our minds. Correlation between improved cardiovascular fitness and a greater protective effect on brain structure has been found. One study monitored 165 older adults without dementia and it was found that higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness lead to greater preservation of the hippocampus and improved scores on spatial memory tasks (1).
Activation of different areas of the brain and enhanced connectivity between areas has been noted as an effect of exercise. Findings of higher levels of overall fitness demonstrate that the brain functions more efficiently than in those of lower fitness levels. Higher levels of angiogenesis (increased blood vessel numbers), improve blood supply to brain and increased levels of a protective neurotrophin (1). A neurotrophin is a specialized protein that allows for the growth and function of neurons which helps bolster neural connections in the brain. More research is being conducted on the effects of improving brain efficiency in those with cognitive impairments.
Cardiovascular training consists of walking, running, biking, stepping, high volume body weight movements; pretty much any movement that helps elevate the heart rate beyond resting. It is important to engage with some kind of fitness regimen because the available research thus far does demonstrate the ability of the brain to be protected from certain cognitive diseases. Not only do you reduce the risk factors for various cardiovascular diseases that can impact your health but you increase your chances for maintaining brain vitality. There is a lot of worth in getting up to exercise.
By Craig Cole, Bethany Village Exercise Physiologist
1. Bherer L, Erickson KI, Liu-Ambrose T. A Review of the Effects of Physical Activity and Exercise on Cognitive and Brain Functions in Older Adults. Journal of Aging Research. 2013;2013:657508. doi:10.1155/2013/657508.
2. Chaddock, L, Voss, Michelle, Kramer, F. Physical Activity and Fitness Effects on Cognition and Brain Health in Children and Older Adults. Kinesiology Review. 2012; 1, 37-45.