Exercise May Help Protect Against Cognitive Decline

If you needed another reason to fit in fitness, try doing it for your noggin. Exercise can boost areas of the brain associated with thinking and memory in individuals who are at risk for cognitive issues, according to research presented this week at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America. The study authors observed 35 adults who had mild cognitive impairment over a six month period. The participants were separated into two groups: one that performed aerobic activity multiple times per week ― including workouts on a treadmill, elliptical and stationary bike ― and a control group that only engaged in stretching exercises. The researchers then conducted MRI scans on the participants and gave them tests that measured their executive functioning, which controls mental tasks such as paying attention in a meeting. Those who exercised at least four times a week experienced an increase in overall volume and gray matter in some areas of the brain including the temporal lobe, which is associated with short-term memory. Those who only did stretching also experienced an increase, but the exercise group had greater gains. The exercise group also showed a better performance in executive functioning, whereas the stretching group saw no improvement. “Any type of exercise can be beneficial,” study co-author Jeongchul Kim of the Wake Forest School of Medicine said in a statement. “If possible, aerobic activity may create potential benefits for higher cognitive functioning.” This study may be particularly important to dementia research because those with mild cognitive impairment are at an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Exercise is already known to boost gray matter, a major component of the central nervous system; the loss of grey matter is associated with Alzheimer’s.  There are some caveats to the study. The sample size is small, for starters. And the average age of the adults who participated was 63 for the exercise group and 67 for the stretching group – approximately the age at which Alzheimer’s symptoms typically appear. This means that the researchers aren’t sure what effect exercise would have on other age groups, and more research is needed in order to make a definitive conclusion. Regardless, it’s a positive step. After all, only good can come from physical activity. Who’s ready to hit the gym?

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