Exercise to beat dementia: Regular physical activity 'boosts brain regeneration'

Frequent, moderate physical activity can delay the start of dementia

Science Editor in Chicago

Moderate but regular exercise can boost the size of the parts of the brain that shrink with age, according to scientists who believe that light physical activity is one of the best ways of preventing senile dementia.

A study involving 120 people aged between 60 and 80 found that walking briskly for 30 to 40 minutes a day three times a week was all that it takes to “re-grow” the structures of the brain linked with cognitive decline in later life.

The effect was equivalent to stopping the ageing clock of the brain by between 1 and 2 years and is one of the first scientifically controlled studies demonstrating the power of physical exercise in delaying the onset of mental decline and boosting brain regeneration, scientists said.

Brain scans taken before and after the year-long study showed that two regions of the brain in particular - the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus - grew in volume among the group undertaking light aerobic exercise, while they continued to shrink in those who were given only stretching tasks.

The exercise group also did better at cognitive tasks which tested things like memory, language ability and attention, which are known to decline with age, than the second group that did not exercise.

“The results suggest that brain and cognitive function of the older adults remain plastic and highly malleable. There is not this inevitable decline that we used to think there was. We can improve brain function by relatively modest amounts of physical activity,” said Kirk Erickson of the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.

“Between six months and one year of regular physical activity can actually increase the size of the prefrontal cortex regions and another region of the brain called the hippocampus,” Professor Erickson told the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“Both of these regions deteriorate and shrink as we get older. The prefrontal cortex is really involved in a lot of higher level cognitive functions and the hippocampus is well known to be involved in memory formation, and when it shrinks it leads to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia,” he said.

“With modest amounts of exercise we are able to increase the size of these structures that typically deteriorate and precede the cognitive complaints that often come in late adulthood

“The hippocampus increased by about 2 per cent over a one year period. That may sound like a modest amount but that’s actually like reversing the age clock by about one to two years,” he added.

There is strong epidemiological evidence linking a sedentary lifestyle to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, but this latest study was part of a randomised, controlled trial which has a greater power of linking cause and effect, Professor Erickson said.

“We take older adults, bring them in to the laboratory, assess their fitness levels and give them very comprehensive cognitive tests. We show that those adults that remain more active and physically fit tended to do better on a variety of cognitive tests,” he told the meeting.

“In these studies we bring people into the lab who are not very physically active to begin with, and they are at higher risk of cognitive decline. We randomise them into either a control condition or one that receives exercise,” he explained.

“They come in three days a week, and have the same social interaction etc. The main difference is in the type of physical exercise and the intensity of exercise. One group does walking around a track and the other does light stretching, rather than aerobic exercise,” he said.

The scientists do not as yet know what causes the brain areas to increase in volume. It might be increased blood flow or an increase in the number of neurons or other kinds of brain cells.

While there was a 2 per cent average increase in volume within the exercise group, the same brain regions shrunk by about 1.5 per cent in the group who did not take part in the exercise regime, which is the normal rate of shrinking for this age range, Professor Erickson said.

“You don’t need highly vigorous physical activity to see these effects. People are misled into believing they need years of vigorous physical exercise. But it only needs to be moderate and not even for that long,” he said.

“They feel better. They say they feel as if the fog has lifted. We get those types of comments quite a bit, so anecdotally it seems to benefit these cognitive functions,” he said.

“Exercise influences virtually every tissue and organ system of the body. It has a very widespread influence and makes it very difficult to track which makes it difficult to isolate one thing but that’s probably why it’s so difficult to know what’s going on because it hitting so many different molecular systems.

“All the evidence is lining up that this is a very effective non-pharmaceutical approach to treating dementia....If we measured these people for longer period of time we’d probably find that we are slowing the decline rather than completely mitigating it. But it might slow it down for a long period of time. We cannot say it’s the magic bullet cure for Alzheimer’s -- there isn’t one,” he said.

News
The current recommendation from Britain's Chief Medical Officer, is that people refrain from drinking on at least two days a week
food + drinkTheory is that hangovers are caused by methanol poisoning
Life and Style
techConcept would see planes coated in layer of micro-sensors and able to sense wear and tear
News
Patrick Stewart in the classiest ice bucket to date
people
Sport
Premier League Live Saturday 23 August
sportAll the action from today's Premier League matches
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    JavaScript Developer (C++ / C# / HTML, Java Angular.js) London

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A world leading business intellig...

    Application Support Analyst-(UNIX, Linux, Financial Services)

    £40000 - £60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Application Support Analyst-(UNIX...

    Application Support Analyst - SQL, UNIX, Linux

    £30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Application Support Analyst - SQL...

    Application Support - FIX protocol, UNIX, SQL, Windows, OMS

    £40000 - £60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Application Support - FIX protoco...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition