How can exercise benefit my brain as I age?

Sharine Forbes
Geriatric Medicine

The Seattle Longitudinal Studies and MacArthur study, which have discovered that involving oneself in regular mental stimulation alone, although beneficial, may not be sufficient in sustaining the processes of the brain. It has also been suggested that in addition to thought-provoking stimulation, that physical and social activity, and a well-balanced diet can ward off the risk of developing Alzheimer’s in old age. As Alzheimer’s, and its associated mental decline, has proven to be a disease that has received much public attention, researchers have geared their focus towards discovering a mechanism by which the disease and its associated symptoms can be prevented, stopped, or even reversed. Accordingly, some of these studies reveal that maintaining cognitive functions by exercising the cognitive mechanisms can help prevent the mental decline in old age associated with Alzheimer’s. However, in addition to the implication that maintaining a favorable amount of mental exercise can be beneficial is the idea that an individual’s choice in lifestyle can also influence cognitive functioning. This means that the sustainability of the brain does not solely rely on one’s level of mental stimulation but also on one’s nutrition, level of physical exercise, and even the amount and the strength of one’s social support network, can contribute significantly to the cognitive aging process. Thus, ones cognition is not just about stimulating the brain; it is about maintaining a healthy, holistic lifestyle.

Exercise can benefit your brain as you age by improving blood flow and other health markers. Maintaining a healthy brain while you age depends on numerous factors, but research continues to support the role of exercise in extending cognitive health in seniors. One study discovered that older adults who engaged in moderate-to-intense exercise retained a higher level of brain health than those who didn’t. In fact, the seniors who weren’t active displayed an extra 10 years of “brain aging” compared to those who did exercise regularly.

In the study, mental capacity was measured in tests that determined “processing speed” and reliability of memory. And while the mechanism of exercise’s effect on the brain wasn’t completely clear, researchers believe that greater blood flow and other improved health markers may be factors. The average age of study subjects was 71 years old.

Another study found that lack of fitness in your middle-age years raises your chances of developing dementia later in life. Those aged about 50 years old with poor fitness levels are four times more likely to develop dementia within 30 years than fit people.

These studies join other research demonstrating the strong connection between exercise and brain health for aging adults. Try to engage in moderate levels of exercise at least three times per week.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.