Exercise has always been thought to benefit the brain but a new study offers proof and even shows how. Researchers at UT Southwestern in Dallas were able to use imaging technology to map blood flow changes in the brain to areas associated with memory as a result of aerobic exercise.
An increase in blood flow to the brain was seen in two areas related to memory and it translated to better memory scores for exercisers. The report published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease is offering hope to those looking to prevent or reverse memory issues associated with aging.
"Perhaps we can one day develop a drug or procedure that safely targets blood flow into these brain regions," says Binu Thomas, Ph.D., a UT Southwestern senior research scientist in neuroimaging. "But we're just getting started with exploring the right combination of strategies to help prevent or delay symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. There's much more to understand about the brain and aging."
Scientists worked with a group of 30 participants aged 60 and older who had pre-existing memory problems. They were divided into an exercise cohort and a stretching cohort.
Detailed brain imaging was done while the participants were at rest at the beginning and end of the one-year study and the members of the exercise group showed a 47 percent improvement in memory scores while the stretching group exhibited minimal change. The imaging showed the exercisers had increased blood flow into regions of the brain important for memory function - the anterior cingulate cortex and the hippocampus.
This improvement was encouraging for Thomas who had previously studied the difference in blood flow between athletes and sedentary individuals. He believes this will be beneficial for people at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
"We've shown that even when your memory starts to fade, you can still do something about it by adding aerobic exercise to your lifestyle," Thomas says.
This research builds on previous studies which showed people with lower fitness levels experienced faster deterioration of the brain’s white matter and people who exercised had slower deterioration of the hippocampus.
Alzheimer’s disease currently affects more than 5 million Americans and that number is expected to triple in the next 30 years unless gains are made to reverse the trend. Thomas is hoping that his research and the implementation of exercise can be part of the solution.
"Cerebral blood flow is a part of the puzzle, and we need to continue piecing it together," Thomas says. "But we've seen enough data to know that starting a fitness program can have lifelong benefits for our brains as well as our hearts."