Most of the healthy habits that keep your brain healthy also keep your heart healthy – and the Amen Clinic has been saying that for years. Now, Boston University Medical Center is pretty close to proving it.
In one of the first studies of its kind, older adults who scored high on cardio fitness tests also directly performed better on memory tasks (than those who did not).
Further, the more fit older adults were, the more active their brains remained during learning tests, and beyond.
Healthy young adults were tested (18-31 years) along with older adults (55-74 years) during a wide range of fitness tests involving walking and jogging on a treadmill. At the same time, researchers assessed their cardiorespiratory fitness by measuring oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.
After exercise, study participants also underwent MRI scans which collected images of their brain while the study participants learned and remembered names that were associated with pictures of unfamiliar faces.
Researchers found that older adults, when compared to younger adults, had more difficulty learning and remembering the correct name associated with each face. Age differences in brain activation were observed with older adults showing decreased brain activation in some regions.
However, the degree to which older adults demonstrated age-related changes in memory performance and brain activity also largely depended on their fitness level.
Fit Seniors Can Pack More Brain Power Than Sedentary Young Adults
“High fitness” older adults in these studies showed better memory performance and increased brain activity patterns compared to their low-fit, younger peers. The increased brain activation in the high fit older adults was observed in brain regions that show age-related decline, suggesting regular exercise may contribute to brain maintenance.
Higher fit older adults also had greater activation than young adults in some brain regions, suggesting that physical fitness and brain power are linked, agrees Scott Hayes, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine.
“Importantly, cardiovascular fitness is a modifiable health factor that can be improved through regular engagement in moderate to vigorous sustained physical activity such as walking, jogging, swimming, or dancing,” says Dr. Hayes.
Therefore, starting an exercise program, regardless of age, can not only contribute to the more obvious physical health factors, but may also contribute to better memory performance and brain function,” he adds.
You Are Never Too Old to Salvage Your Brain
Our own Dr. Daniel G. Amen has been saying that for years. An avid exerciser himself, Dr. Amen says cautions, “While maintaining high levels of fitness through consistent physical activity will not entirely eliminate or cure age- or Alzheimer’s related symptoms, it may slow down the mental decline associated with it.”
Beyond more blood flow to the brain and heart during exercise, additional research is needed to explore the specific mechanism of how physical fitness enhances brain structure and function, says Dr. Amen. “We also need to clarify the impact of specific exercise programs (weight lifting versus walking, for instance) and their frequency and optimal intensities,” he says.
Dr. Amen’s Weekly Fitness Regimen
- 3 days per week, power walking briskly for 60 minutes
- 2 days per week, weight lifting for all major muscle groups
- 3 times per week, playing table tennis intensely
In addition to regular exercise, many different healthful foods and natural supplements are all related to maintaining brain health as you age. Read Dr. Amen’s new book, The Brain Warrior’s Way, for more savvy brain strategies.