Is Exercise Good For Your Brain? Absolutely!
In case you missed it…
This study was all over the news in February and the findings are significant: Exercise increases the size of the hippocampus and improves memory.
Those of you who have heard my brain health talk know the importance of exercise on brain health. This study is the first I’ve seen that actually measures a benefit directly related to brain size in an area of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s disease.
The results are this—in a study on sedentary men and women with an average age of 60, the authors found those who did aerobic exercise had an average increase in hippocampal volume of 2%. Those who did less aerobic exercise, had a decline of hippocampal volume of about 1.4%. (If you want to see more details about the study, read “For Research Geeks” below.)
Oh, an added benefit… both groups had an increase in spatial memory, though the walkers improved more.
The hippocampus is an important part of the brain involved in forming memories. It begins to atrophy around the age of 55. It is also one of the first areas affected by Alzheimer’s.
I don’t know about you, but if I know that something will help a part of my brain that is really important in helping me remember things, and it is one of the first areas affected by Alzheimer’s, I’d do it.
Excuse me, I’m off for my brisk walk in the park…
For you research geeks, here is the study info:
“Exercise Training Increases Size of Hippcampus and Improves Memory”
by Erickson, et al., published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 1/31/11
• Number of participants—120, divided into 2 groups
• Age range—55-80
• Study period—1 year
• Type of exercise the 2 groups did
o 1st group—walked briskly around a track 3 times a week, building up to 40 minutes a time
o 2nd group—stretching and toning exercises, including yoga and resistance training with bands
Do “brain games” work? Here’s what some of the research literature says
By Jane Tornatore, PhD, and Liz Taylor
“Use it or lose it” has become a popular — and well-researched — motto for keeping our muscles working and healthy through exercise as we age.
Now increasing numbers of companies are using the same expression to claim that, by using their computerized “brain games,” moving to their retirement community, learning a new language or playing their crossword puzzles, older people can exercise their brains enough to avoid one of the most frightening illnesses of all, Alzheimer’s disease.
But is this use of “use it or lose it” accurate?
Is it possible to exercise our brain through new and rigorous mental activities so that it will stay supple and cognitively intact?
We decided to see what some of the most recent (2006-2010) research literature says. The results are decidedly mixed.
Of the approximately 15 articles we reviewed, it’s clear that no overwhelming evidence exists to show that brain games or anything else prevents Alzheimer’s. It’s a disease of extraordinary complexity that has medical science still scratching its head.
On the other hand, there is some evidence that stimulating your brain can improve brain functioning, at least for a time. There’s also no evidence that computerized brain games are better for the brain than other stimulating activities. However, if you like to use brain games, keep it up — and introduce new activities along the way. It’s the new activities that help — they form the new neural pathways in your brain, keeping your mind moving! None of it hurts (except, perhaps, your wallet), and there’s a chance that, even if nothing prevents Alzheimer’s, some of these efforts may keep you functioning normally longer, or at least make you a bit sharper as you go about your day.
The bottom line: staying healthy the old fashioned way is still the best way to keep your body and brain sharp as you age — exercising, eating well, reducing stress, and having an active social life. Stimulating your brain in ways you enjoy is just an added bonus.
Here are three of the most recent articles we reviewed:
“Data Lacking on Prevention of Alzheimer’s, Cognitive Decline,” Health-System Pharmany News, June 15, 2010
“Do Brain Trainer Games and Software Work?” Scientific American, July 2009 http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=brain-trainings-unproven-hype
“Brain Games: Do They Really Work?” Scientific American, April 28, 2009 http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=brain-games-do-they-really&page=2
Now that I have done my best to convince you of the importance of exercise for brain health in the last two newsletters, I’ll give you some fun things to do to exercise your brain.
One important note-Last week the results of two studies came out, with seemingly contradictory results. A study posted on the Post-Gazette.com on 4-25-20 found that brain-training software doesn’t improve brain function any more than answering questions on the Internet. Another study published in the journal “Neurology” found that people who engage in activities that exercise the brain, had a slower rate of decline if they later developed dementia. What these two studies tell me is that you don’t have to do specific “brain games” to improve your cognition, but it is important to do activities that stimulate your brain.
Go to the bottom of this entry for the answers to #1 & 2.
The first two exercises come from “The Healthy Brain Kit” by Dr. Andrew Weil and Dr. Gary Small. The third game comes from “The Sharper Mind” by Fred B. Chernow, though I have done a version of it since I was in college.
#1 Count the number of F’s in the following sentence:
“Fresh fish is an excellent source of omega-3’s and a better source of antioxidants than many realize.”
#2 See how many words you can spell from the letters below. No letter may be used twice in the same word, and each word must have the letter “L” in it. (Hint: there are 28 possible words.)
L I G O B A E
#3 This exercise is one of my favorites, and I present it at most of my brain health talks. I can literally feel my brain working when I do it.
You can do this exercise at any time. You only need a sheet of paper and something to write with. Choose any 5-letter word that comes to mind. It needs to have 5 different letters. Select a category such as animals, vehicles, birds, flowers, cities, etc. Draw four lines down the paper and write one letter of the word at the top of each column. Try to find as many items as you can in each category. You can add to the list in your spare moments.
For this version, I used the word “Brain” and chose the category of animals. I included one example for each letter. Fill in as many as you can. If “animals” is too difficult, choose the category “foods” or some other category you know well. (Note, I can’t figure out how to do a table in this blog, so you will just have to imagine the table.)
I Feel Almost Famous
I am pleased to say that a company for which I used to work, Screen Inc., which developed a computerized screening measure for mild cognitive impairment, was mentioned in Newsweek.com.
The name of the measure is the CANS-MCI. If you click on the “reliable and valid” link in the article, under the section entitled “The SAGE test for Alzheimer’s”, you will be taken to a link of an article I published.
To view the article, go to: http://www.newsweek.com/id/236293
Answer to #1: There are four; many people don’t process the word “of.”
Answer to #2: Able, agile, ail, ale, bagel, bail, bale, bile, blog, boil, bole (I had to look this one up, it means the stem or trunk of a tree), gale, gel, glib, glob, globe, goal, goalie, lab, lag, lea, leg, lie, lob, lobe, log, oblige, oil
Exercise Part 2
Last time I wrote about a couple of studies that illustrated the benefits of exercise on cognition. This month, as promised, I outline 6 reasons why exercise is the most important thing we can do for our brain.
1. Creates new neurons in the hippocampus
We used to think that we were born with all the brain cells we would ever have. Science has now shown that idea was wrong. Exercise actually facilitates the production of neurons in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is one of the first regions of the brain damaged by Alzheimer’s disease. So it makes sense that the more neurons we have in the hippocampus, the better.
2. Increases the number of Brain-Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF) in our brains
BDNF is very good for our brain. It is necessary for cell repair, and increases nerve cell growth.
3. Improves blood flow to the brain
Even though the brain makes up only 2-3% of our body weight, is uses 20% of the oxygen we take in. Since oxygen reaches our brain through blood flow, exercise increases the amount of oxygen our brain gets.
4. Regulates our blood sugar levels
Around the age of 50 our body’s ability to regulate blood sugar levels decreases. High blood sugar levels leads to the formation of sticky proteins that block blood flow. Exercise improves our body’s ability to control blood sugar for 24 hours after we finish.
5. Reduces stress
Long-term chronic stress is not good for us. I talked more about why 2 newsletters ago. Look under “Just Breathe” in my brain health blog if you want to read more.
6. Is good for our mental health!
A recent article found that just 20 minutes of exercise a week reduces levels of depression and anxiety. On the website www.Mayoclinic.com it is written that as little as 10 to 15 minutes of exercise can make a difference in depression.
To tell you the truth, there are more than 6 reasons why exercise is good for our brain, but I will stop here. Rest assured, I will revisit exercise in future newsletters. In the meantime, find a way to get your blood pumping that you enjoy, so you will actually keep doing it!
This is perhaps the most important thing you can do for your brain health, and I’m not talking about running marathons.
In an article this week in the Washington Post, Dr. Gary Small, a well-respected research scientist based at UCLA, said 10 minutes of brisk walking each day can help lower one’s risk of Alzheimer’s. Research has shown that people who exercise on a consistent basis are 30%-60% less likely to develop dementia later on in life. Not bad.
Some studies have shown that more vigorous exercise can benefit those with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). A study out of the Mayo Clinic found that adults with MCI who did high intensity aerobics for 45-60 minutes four times a week have improved cognitive function after six months of exercise.
This tip is so important that I will focus on it again next month, when I will share 6 reasons why exercise is good for us.