“Stay Active; age gracefully,” they advise.
There is a heap of unanswered questions behind this very truism. Global researchers are standing on their toes to find what it is about exercise that keeps your brain young and healthy. The truth is, they are unsure about whether or not exercise can influence the course of diseases that may lead to dementia (in lay man terms, loss of memory which severely affects the daily life of an individual) or Alzheimer’s disease.
New neurons (the fundamental units of the nervous system) are generated in the hippocampus, a small, curved, grey tissue inside the brain. These neurons contain all that a person cherishes – memories, knowledge and emotions. In diseases such as Alzheimer’s, these neurons and synapses are severely damaged, which leads to dementia.
Due to the grim nature of dementia, scientists are on a look out for effective treatment methods. Recently, a study was conducted on mice that showed symptoms similar to that of dementia. They underwent a string of genetic treatments which were able to induce the generation of new neurons (neurogenesis). However, only initiating neurogenesis wasn’t enough. A positive result was seen only when the levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) were spiked. This is to say that BDNF mimics the effects of exercise on cognition.
The connection between exercise and brain aging
As per many studies conducted over the years, if you stay fit and active throughout your life, the risk of developing memory problems at a later stage in life are lower. A recent project that tracked 1000 women over 4 decades revealed that the women who had high cardiovascular fitness at the initial stage were able to delay the onset of dementia by as much as 9.5 years. However, such studies cannot eliminate the effect of other confounding factors (ranging from genes to various other aspects of a healthy lifestyle and an exercise routine) that may lead to dementia later in life. Besides, exactly what exercise does to keep the brain healthy is still unexplained.
Does exercise really protect the brain?
The only benefit exercise does the brain is that it helps the generation of new neurons in the hippocampus However, it is still debatable whether or not the human brain generates new neurons all through life.
Multiple studies based on rodents have revealed that the generation of new neurons in adulthood helps keeps cognitive skills sharp, which includes the ability to learn about and navigate the physical environment better. Some similar studies have also proven links between regular exercise and the generation of new neurons.
Having mice run on wheels seemed to help double the newborn hippocampal neurons surviving in their brains. Also, the mice that showed brain benefits in that memory test had all the markers of neurogenesis.
Do newly generated neurons without any exercise help the brain?
Only generating new neurons is not helpful. To prove this, the diseased mice were given a drug along with the gene therapy to protect neural progenitor cells in the hippocampus and to help all these cells multiply. Although the neurons were regenerated, there was no apparent affect on the memory of the mice. However, these mice outperformed the untreated controlled mice on the memory test only after they were given another gene therapy to boost the level of a BDNF (known to encourage neural growth and reduce inflammation in an unhealthy brain.
The outcome of the research suggests that generating new neurons in the brain at an early stage of life may be able to protect memory later. Alzheimer’s disease leads to a hostile environment; however, a BDNF helps clean up the neighbourhood in which newly generated neurons can live in.
Is it possible to treat Alzheimer’s disease in humans with this strategy?
The drug companies gave less attention to this approach than to reducing the amyloid plaques that surround and damage neurons. However, there are researchers who think this deserves a deeper research.
Then there are other researchers concluding that even a light exercise like walking keeps the human brain healthy and young. Based on a cognitive assessment, a study revealed that active women are outperforming women who are less active by simply walking for an hour and a half per day, leaving the author surprised.
The study also revealed that people who walked more than3 km per day were less likely to develop dementia than people who walked less than 1 km per day. As per the conclusion of this study, people who are active and lead a healthy lifestyle are more likely to maintain a healthy cognitive function than others.
Here is how exercise helps your brain directly
There is no doubt about the fact that exercise helps you stay healthy and fit. There are many other facts about exercise that prove it helps brain function. Some of them are as follows:
· It helps reduce the risk of type-2 diabetes, which directly leads to depression as well as to Alzheimer’s.
· Your ability to learn and memorize information increases and the risk of getting anxiety and depression decreases correspondingly, especially as you age.
· Exercises that increase your heart rate also increase your ability to concentrate and learn. At the same time, your ability to recall what you learn also increases rapidly.
· Exercise gives you the potential to restore the memories you lost due to normal aging.
· Exercising can also enhance some specific cognitive functions in the hippocampus and frontal cortex, which ultimately affects your long-term thoughts, decision making and rationale.
· Your brain produces more energy and, that too, very efficiently when you exercise, which means that your brain has the ability to work pretty well.
· Exercise may also trigger a protective function against Parkinson’s disease.
· A moderate exercise schedule helps your body reduce the stress level.
Some more reasons to exercise
Your heart becomes healthier and stronger when you exercise, as it has to pump more blood and oxygen as per the demand by your active muscles. This is the primary reason why researchers believe that what is good for your health is also good for your brain. Therefore, when you exercise, you reduce your risk of:
· Heart diseases
These diseases – individually or when combined– contribute to neuro-degeneration, brain-dysfunction, or/and damage of neurons.