Exercise Now Prevents Brain Shrinkage Later

We wrote about brain aging recently, noting the importance of certain brain areas in recalling memories. Now, new research presents evidence that exercise may be a key component of maintaining brain size and function—for all areas of the brain.

What Researchers Found
In a study out of Boston University (and others), researchers followed almost 1,100 participants free of dementia and cardiovascular disease for several decades.  At the start of the study, back in the early 1980s, researchers had the subjects complete an exercise treadmill test. At that time, most of the subjects were in their late 30s or early 40s. Two decades later, researchers had the participants complete the exercise test again, and this time they also underwent MRI brain scans. Amazingly, researchers found that people who performed lower on the first exercise test early in life (back in the ’80s) had relatively smaller brains nearly two decades later.

So What?
There is lots of evidence showing that your brain structure changes with age (generally, it shrinks or “atrophies”).  This becomes even more severe with a diagnosis of a neurological disease. An atrophied brain may lead to cognitive impairments such as memory decline, seizures and aphasia (impaired comprehension and formation of sentences).

What Can You Do?
Many studies have looked at the effects of exercise on brain shrinkage. In general, the data suggests working out more than three times a week for 45 to 60 minutes tends to provide the best results (preventing shrinkage most effectively). Both cardiovascular training (walking, running) and coordination training (exercise balls, stability boards, exercise bands) have been found to combat brain atrophy, but cardiovascular training is slightly more effective.

Besides exercise, brain shrinkage can also be slowed by B-vitamin supplementation (although there’s only a bit of evidence for this) and eating a healthy diet including seafood and foods high in antioxidants, which has also been shown to reduce risk for cardiovascular disease, among other health benefits.

Matthew Poulsen

Matthew Poulsen is an intern with the Healthy Aging Project, and a student in the Integrative Physiology Department at the University of Colorado Boulder.