It’s been projected that the global incidence of dementia will double every 20 years. With numbers continuing to rise, thankfully emerging research is helping us understand what we should be doing to help our brains as we age. According to new research, boosting cognitive function could be as easy as doing any type of aerobic exercise a few times a week.
Aerobic Exercise and Brain Health
The study, which was published in the journal NeuroImage, set out to determine what type of exercise best improved brain health in older adults. For the research, 180 adults aged 60 to 79 who were considered inactive (generally doing less than 150 minutes of exercise per week) but otherwise healthy were recruited. They were then divided into three subgroups: one group would begin walking, one took up dancing, and one control group that did strengthening and balancing exercises (such as yoga and resistance training). Each group met to work out for 60 minutes three times per week for a total of six months.
All of subjects underwent MRI testing and completed cognitive and cardiorespiratory tests at the beginning and end of the trial so that the researchers could measure how the different types of exercise affected their brains.
According to the results, those who walked or danced (which are both aerobic exercises) benefited the most in terms of their brain health. After the six-month trial, the researchers found an increase of white matter in their brains. White matter is found in the largest and deepest tissues of the brain, and it contains millions of nerve fibers that connect other parts of the brain and spinal cord. These connections signal our nerves to communicate with one another, and they’re involved in everyday processes like walking straight and thinking clearly. Typically, in a person with dementia, doctors will observe white matter deterioration in the brain.
Specifically, the researchers observed increased white matter in the areas of the brain that are involved in memory and executive function in the walking and dancing group. Notably, the walking group showed improvements in both short term and long term memory by the end of the study. In contrast, the group that met to do strengthening and balancing exercises did not show any increases in white matter. Rather, their white matter continued to decrease as it normally would.
So whether or not you’re the most active person, this news serves as a reminder that preserving your brain health could be as simple as calling up a friend and heading out for an evening stroll, or taking a dance class with your partner. As long as you’re moving your body with some type of aerobic exercise a few times a week, you can be confident that you’re strengthening those important neuropathways!