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  1. Health

Another reason to exercise? Brain benefits

Zumba instructor Damaris DeJesus leads the Zumba Gold class at the Spurlino YMCA in Gibsonton. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Published Mar. 26

If the promise of losing weight hasn't propelled you off the couch and into the gym, maybe this will. There's a bounty of research that says exercise benefits the brain in ways that may delay or prevent dementia, Alzheimer's disease and the inevitable mind-muddling effects of aging on the brain.

The human brain reaches its functioning pinnacle sometime in our 20s. After that, thinking and processing skills slowly begin to decline. The older we get, the more we notice little slips, like walking into a room and forgetting why you're there, not being able to recall the three things on your grocery list or, even worse, oops — forgetting to pick up the kids. We've all had those moments. It's a natural part of aging.

By the time you reach your 40s you can't help but notice you have to work a little harder to retain and recall new information. In your 50s and beyond it takes longer to learn new, seemingly simple tasks and to organize projects. Even concentrating on conversations and in meetings becomes challenging.

But what if you could do something that might delay mental decline or improve your current thinking skills? The answer may be as simple as adopting a more active lifestyle.

Experts are still studying why exercise improves thinking and cognitive function, but it probably has to do with increasing blood flow to the brain and generally reducing chronic inflammation in the body. Some studies have shown that it also increases the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that's involved with memory and learning. Exercise is also thought to increase chemicals in the brain that support the growth of new blood vessels and brain cells. While we've long known that exercise helps with weight loss, strengthens the heart and bones and even contributes to diabetes and cancer prevention, most of us still don't get the recommended 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity at least five days a week. But what you don't do for your body, maybe you'll do for your brain?

There is growing evidence that regular aerobic exercise can help improve cognitive function, things like thinking, comprehending ideas, problem solving, retaining information, organizing activities and reasoning. You just have to be willing to sweat a little several days a week.

One of the most recent studies, published in the January online issue of Neurology, found that regular aerobic exercise such as walking and cycling improved thinking skills in people as young as 20, but the improvements were even more pronounced in those in their 40s and 60s.

The skills that improved were associated with what is known as executive function, the ability to regulate behavior, pay attention, organize tasks and achieve goals. Study participants were between the ages of 20 and 67, didn't have dementia, didn't exercise at the start of the study and had below average fitness levels. The 132 participants were divided into two groups: One group did stretching and toning at a fitness center; the other engaged in walking on a treadmill, cycling on a stationary bike or working out on an elliptical machine.

At the end of six months the group that exercised aerobically scored higher on executive function tests compared to the stretching and toning group. But participants over age 40 performed best, with those in their 60s garnering the highest scores, suggesting that the positive effects of exercise on thinking may increase as we age. "The people who exercised were testing as if they were about 10 years younger at age 40 and about 20 years younger at age 60," study author Yaakov Stern of Columbia University said in a news release. That's good news for anyone in middle age who wants to perform better at work or just finish up that college degree that has long been on hold.

"This is another of several studies we've seen which tells us that aerobic activity is good for the brain," said Dr. Amanda Smith, director of clinical research at the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer's Institute, who was not involved with the study. "This study tells us that exercise helps improve thinking, it doesn't just stop it from declining. It improves things like multitasking and shifting focus, organizing the day, mental processing that may help us better get through our day."

Smith notes the study demonstrates that an intervention, essentially a treatment — in this case aerobic exercise — offered to people who didn't already exercise brought about a positive change in cognitive function. "They improved with this intervention," she said. "That's what's new and interesting. These were younger, nonimpaired people and they improved."

The Columbia University study didn't find a link between exercise and improved memory. But other studies have.

"Exercise is the best way to prevent Alzheimer's disease," said Stephen Rao, a neuropsychologist and director of Cleveland Clinic's Schey Center for Cognitive Neuroimaging. Rao, who has been involved in Alzheimer's research for 15 years, said his work has focused on preventing Alzheimer's. "We found that with physical activity, those who were genetically at risk for Alzheimer's could delay the onset. It's neuroprotective, especially in those with a family history of the disease or a genetic marker for it," he said. "If we can delay onset by 10 years, it's possible that we could wipe it out, prevent it."

Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia and, according to the Alzheimer's Association, it is associated with memory loss, thinking and behavior changes and is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. While it can strike as early as the 40s and 50s, most people are 65 or older when diagnosed. Symptoms get progressively worse over time and there is no cure.

Rao has been awarded a $9 million National Institute on Aging grant to study the impact of exercise on those with a genetic risk for Alzheimer's disease. "We think physical activity reduces inflammation," he said, "so the changes we see in the brain that are associated with Alzheimer's can't occur. That's our hypothesis." Rao said that if exercise shows positive effects in this study and the findings are validated by others in the field, "it could significantly reduce the number of people who develop Alzheimer's … particularly helpful since exercise is free and easy to access."

Noemi Santana of Riverview has been taking a Zumba class at her local YMCA twice a week to remain active as she transitions into retirement. The 70-year-old recently shifted into part-time work and doesn't want to also shift into a sedentary lifestyle. "All my years working I've always been in motion," she said. "Zumba is fun, it's something to get me out of the house, I meet other people and enjoy an upbeat experience." She plans to add a third day to her routine as soon as the additional day is added to the class schedule.

Santana, who has a touch of arthritis, fears "freezing up" if she doesn't exercise. She didn't realize the class may benefit her brain as much as her joints. But it makes sense to her now: Aerobic exercise, learning new choreography, keeping up with the dance movements and music and meeting and interacting with new people all contribute to better brain health. "I think it's wonderful," she said. "Knowing that gives me more incentive to go to class."

Contact Irene Maher at imaher@earthlink.net.

BE PROACTIVE

What can you do to preserve thinking skills and memory?

Exercise Get at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity five days a week. Get your heart rate up, be a little breathless, sweat a little. Check with your doctor first to make sure the pace is right for you.

Type of exercise Experts agree that until we know more, you should aim to get the heart rate up with activities such as brisk walking, running, dancing, swimming, tennis and even sweeping, floor mopping and raking, which can be aerobic.

Learn something new If you're already good at crosswords and knitting, start something new that challenges you to think, remember and problem solve. Learn a new language, a new card game, take up dancing, read technical journals, choose new puzzles, join the choir, start playing a musical instrument.

Social interaction Remain socially engaged. The best-case scenario is to exercise and learn new skills with other people. It's not enough to stare at the TV or a computer screen doing brain teasers. That's isolating. It's social interaction that counts and really benefits the mind. Become a joiner, meet new people, talk with them, share ideas, memories, go on outings together.

Diet Eat a heart-healthy diet and actively prevent conditions that damage the heart and blood vessels, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, stroke, metabolic disorder and diabetes. According to the Alzheimer's Association, there is strong evidence that brain health is linked to heart health.

Also Avoid tobacco and excess alcohol and prevent head injuries. Wear a seat belt, and wear a helmet when you bicycle, skate, ski or play contact sports. Take measures to prevent falls, even if it means using a cane or walker and pulling up your favorite area rugs.

Sources: Harvard Health Letter, Alzheimer's Association, Cleveland Clinic, USF Health Byrd Alzheimer's Institute

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