Everyone fears aging to some extent, even if they age well. But well beyond wrinkles and sagging skin, the most intimidating loss associated with aging is that of memory and cognition. These functions rely heavily on a part of the brain called the hippocampus and have recently been the focus of study by a team of American researchers. The study found that, in a group of adults over 65 years of age, regular aerobic exercise accompanies increases in hippocampal volume, and these gains were related to marked improvements in memory.
This most recent American study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, confirms and expands upon the findings of a previous, more extensive study done in Italy and published in 2008 in the journal Neurology.
The Italian study followed a group of subjects aged 65 years and older for four years, using cognitive assessment tests to gauge the health of participants, and correlating the findings to information about participants’ exercise habits. The study was significant not only because it found dramatic reductions in development of dementia for those who exercised regularly (a 73% decrease), it also showed that the intensity of exercise had almost no bearing on results: exercises like walking, climbing stairs and gardening were just as effective at staving off dementia as more strenuous activities.
The American study used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to assess changes in hippocampal volume in a group of participants over age 65, who performed regular aerobic exercise, and in a control group, who did not. Despite the fact that adults of this age lose 1% to 2% of their hippocampal volume per year, this study found an average gain of 2% in hippocampal volume among participants who engaged in regular aerobic walking, and the expected average loss of 1.4% in the control group. The study additionally found that increases in hippocampal volume accompanied increases in memory function.
Studies that look at exercise’s effect on the brain during aging are ongoing and very popular, with all signs pointing to the same conclusion: regular moderate exercise, especially aerobic walking, is an excellent way to fight cognitive decline. It is similarly associated with a significant decrease in the development of Alzheimer’s, and it has even been shown to slow the progression of the disease in individuals already affected.
So with all this evidence pointing to the inescapable conclusion that aerobic exercise is essential for aging well, there’s more reason than ever to do your body this favor. Go take that 30-minute walk today, and then tomorrow, get up and do it again. Your brain will inevitably thank you.
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