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Fighting Cognitive Decline – Part 1: Exercise

The following is the first in a three-part series on Cognitive Decline. To address this fact of life with a fighting attitude and plan, follow this series to start that fight today at any age. After being presented with this topic as a part of a writing committee, I set out to find out what […]

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The following is the first in a three-part series on Cognitive Decline. To address this fact of life with a fighting attitude and plan, follow this series to start that fight today at any age.

After being presented with this topic as a part of a writing committee, I set out to find out what cognitive decline is.  Generally speaking, I found that cognitive decline is defined by the Mayo Clinic within the context of a more serious diagnosis. “Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is the stage between the expected cognitive decline of normal aging and the more serious decline of dementia. It can involve problems with memory, language, thinking and judgment that are greater than normal age-related changes.”[i] 

What then is expected cognitive decline for normal aging?  “All aging humans will develop some degree of decline in cognitive capacity as time progresses. Data indicates that deterioration of the biological framework that underlies the ability to think and reason begins as early as the mid- twenties.”[ii] According to the research there are a number of physiological factors that lead to the decline of our brain health.  Symptoms can start to occur as we age.  These symptoms include forgetfulness.  Symptoms can also include a decreased ability to maintain focus and decreased ability to problem solve.  In some cases, symptoms can progress into more serious conditions, such as dementia or even Alzheimer’s disease.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, mild cognitive impairment or MCI, “causes cognitive changes that are serious enough to be noticed by the individuals experiencing them or to other people, but the changes are not severe enough to interfere with daily life or independent function.”[iii]  This seems like something we all experience.  However, this is a much more serious diagnosis based on an in-depth evaluation by a physician.[iv] 

After looking into this condition, I wondered if we all face this in some capacity, then shouldn’t we learn more about how to stop it?  We could arm ourselves with knowledge and take action to ward off this potentially devastating condition.  Specifically, how can we fight against cognitive decline?  My answer is simple.  The Three E’s:

  1. Exercising
  2. Eating right
  3. Exploring mindfulness

First, let’s address exercising, then in future articles, I will share ideas on eating right followed by exploring mindfulness.

Exercising is an amazing tool to use to fight against cognitive decline.  I never knew that before researching this, but I found that it absolutely is.  The link specifically between cardiovascular exercise and the condition of the brain is fascinating. 

In the book, “Spark, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” the authors, John J. Ratey, MD with Eric Hagerman, present an amazing glimpse through the magical rabbit hole of scientific research into our brains.  To quote the authors, “exercise is Miracle-Gro for your brain.”  Wow!  That alone is enough to make me focus on exercise and dedicate the time needed for my overall health.

The authors show scientific research that supports this statement.  The beginning of the book centers on Naperville Central High School’s physical education program dating back to the 1990’s.  The physical education program was transformed by the creation of a “before first period” exercise class for students.  These students were able to exercise and raise their heart rates before first period.  Surprisingly, this exercise before school resulted in positive academic effects for the students.  These students were tracked and found to have achieved increased test scores, specifically in reading comprehension as a result of participating in this exercise program.  Further, more studies have shown that the practice of exercise in the morning has produced scientifically confirmed benefits for students and adults generally in the areas of learning, studying, and other cognitive performance. 

After reading, “Spark,” I know that the habit of exercise, especially cardiovascular exercise, is a good thing for the body AND the mind.  However you want to term it, exercise should not be thought of in a singular way.  Growing up, I just thought of exercise as good for my body.  I didn’t consider that exercise was physiologically helping me to grow brain cells and improve my overall health, but according to the authors, it is.

Over the course of this past year, I have been bombarded with messages about heart health being linked with brain health.  I think this was actually the phenomenon referred to as the “Baader-Meinhof” effect or “frequency illusion.”  But however it came to be brought to my attention, I began seeing this linkage and learning more about it.  Here’s the takeaway from the articles I have read:  add cardiovascular exercise to your daily life and you will actively be fighting and maybe even preventing premature cognitive decline or worse conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. 

Specifically, running has been shown to create the best mental effects. The runner’s high is an extreme effect that has been shown scientifically to increase alertness and mental productivity for runners. The feeling may lead to growth in the brain – just as the book, “Spark,” explains – it can be Miracle-Gro for the brain!

Any kind of cardiovascular exercise that raises the heart rate can provide mental benefits as well. The addition of weight training and other lower impact exercising like swimming can add fire to the fight against cognitive decline.

Keeping the body feeling good without any pulls, soreness, or other injuries is important, too. That’s where yoga at least once a week is necessary. Whether it is done live in a studio or at home with a video or online with a program like Yoga with Adrienne (https://yogawithadriene.com/) there are many ways to add yoga in to your exercise routine.

Overall, any increase in exercise would be a great step toward fighting cognitive decline. Add one minute of exercise to your day every day and see what benefits are created. At the very least you will be arming yourself to fight cognitive decline.

Join me for the continuation of this discussion with a focus on the next way to fight cognitive decline:  eating right followed by exploring mindfulness. 

© 2020 Megan Davia Mikhail


[i] See  https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mild-cognitive-impairment/symptoms-causes/syc-20354578.

[ii] See https://www.lifeextension.com/Protocols/Neurological/Age-Related-Cognitive-Decline/Page-02

[iii] See https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/what-is-dementia/related_conditions/mild-cognitive-impairment

[iv] See https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/what-is-dementia/related_conditions/mild-cognitive-impairment

 for more information

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