Forget the Crossword Puzzle—the Proven Way to Boost Brain Health
You know what it’s like. And it’s not just about trying to find your keys.
It’s about sitting there staring at your computer screen, trying to remember what you were going to do.
Or forgetting that your oldest son had practice this afternoon, or that your best friend’s birthday was last week.
Could these symptoms be a sign of more difficulties to come? If so, is there anything we can do about it?
Brain Health is a Big Deal
Incidences of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are rising. The Alzheimer’s Association notes that more than 5 million people are living with the disease, and that a woman’s lifetime risk is 1 in 6. (Her lifetime risk of breast cancer is 1 in 11.)
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that by 2050, the number of people affected by Alzheimer’s is expected to double. Even today, after the age of 65, the risk of developing the disease doubles every five years.
We’ve all heard about the various ways we may be able to boost brainpower and prevent Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. These include regularly engaging in memory games and puzzles, learning new things, eating a healthy diet, meditating, and maintaining social connections.
There’s one more method, though, that not only clears brain fog and helps prevent dementia, but may also actually help you “grow” your brain to perform even more efficiently than it did before.
On top of all that, it can help you look better in your little black dress.
This miracle treatment?
Exercise: a Magic Elixir for the Brain
Researchers suspected the connection all along. Exercise gets your heart pumping, which increases blood flow to the entire body, including the brain. Blood carries nutrients and oxygen, so it would make sense that getting more to the brain would help it to stay healthy.
But it turns out that exercise does a lot more than that. Here’s a quick glimpse at what some of the research has found.
- Enhances learning: A number of studies have found that aerobic exercise actually boosts the size of the hippocampus, that area of the brain involved in learning (among other things). It also reduces inflammation (thought to increase risk of dementia) and stimulates the growth of new brain cells that support learning.
- Improves memory: Exercise regularly and you’ll have a better memory. In a 2013 study, for example, scientists had participants 57-75 years of age engage in aerobic exercise for an hour three times a week for 12 weeks, while a control group did not exercise. Results showed that those who exercised performed better on immediate and delayed memory tests. They also had better blood flow to the brain, even when resting.
- Counteracts age-related mental decline: Exercise can increase brain plasticity. It does this in a number of ways, but one includes mobilizing certain genes that help the brain continue to learn and change. In 2002, researchers reported that exercise “induces expression of genes associated with plasticity,” promoting changes in the brain associated with regeneration and rebuilding. They added that exercise stimulates changes that “prepare the brain to encode meaningful information from the environment and, at the same time, activates mechanisms that protect the brain from damage.”
- Stimulates brain growth: One of the things that researchers used to think characterized the “aging” brain was a sort of stiffness—an inability to grow or change once the initial growth period through childhood and adolescence was over. It was the idea that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” but now we know that isn’t true. According to research from UCLA, for example, exercise increases growth factors in the brain, making it easier for you to grow new neuronal connections—a fancy way of saying exercise makes it easier for you to learn new things. They also found that the growth in the brain correlated with the amount of exercise. Run a little farther, for example, and you’re likely to increase the length of neurons in your brain. The effects held true even for participants who had suffered nerve injury—exercise helped regenerate those areas that were damaged.
- Makes you smarter, even when you’re young: Even in young women, exercise can make a mental difference. According to a study from New Zealand, young women aged 18 to 30 who exercised regularly had higher oxygen availability in the frontal lobe, and performed better on difficult cognitive tasks than participants who exercised less. Lead author Dr. Liana Machado stated: “This provides compelling evidence that regular exercise, at least 5 days per week, is a way to sharpen our cognitive ability as young adults—challenging the assumption that living a sedentary lifestyle leads to problems only later in life.”
- Protects the brain from disease: Exercise protects the brain from decline, and reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. In one study, for example, researchers found that after 12 weeks of exercise, participants had increased blood flow to the hippocampus—the part of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s disease. In another study, researchers found that neural stem cells typically declined in the aging brain, but that exercise significantly increased these stem cells, restoring them to youthful levels. In addition, several studies have found a direct link between exercise and a reduced risk of dementia. In 2001, for example, researchers looked at data from over 9,000 men and women 68 years and older, and found that regular physical activity was associated with “lower risks for cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia of any type.” The more participants exercised, the more they reduced their risk.
- Acts like an antidepressant: Feeling blue, or overwhelmed? You’ve likely been ignoring your regular workouts. A study from Stockholm found that aerobic exercise has an antidepressant effect, dropping stress hormones and improving behavior in depressed participants. It was also associated with more cell growth in the hippocampus, the center of the brain responsible for emotion and memory.
- Gives you a focus boost: Exercise even for 20 minutes and you’ll feel a brain boost. This was what researchers from the University of Georgia found. Participants who got their heart beating even for a short period of time experienced improvements in information processing and memory.
“Physical exercise may be one of the most beneficial and cost-effective therapies widely available to everyone to elevate memory performance,” said Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D., founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth. “These findings should motivate adults of all ages to start exercising aerobically.
Any Woman Can Improve Her Brain Health
You may worry that you’ve inherited certain characteristics that make it impossible to improve your cognitive ability or to avoid Alzheimer’s. Genetics are a powerful influence in our lives, but the don’t have to dictate your destiny.
In a study of identical twins who had similar exercise habits as kids but different ones as adults, for example, results showed that the active twins had significantly more gray matter than their sedentary siblings. This was a small study, but it suggested that with the right lifestyle choices, we can have more influence over our brain health than we may have believed.
How Much to Exercise?
Though researchers are still don’t know the ideal amount of daily exercise for optimal brain health, most studies so far have focused on 30 minutes of aerobic exercise at least five days a week. In other words, you don’t have to spend hours at the gym. Just work exercise into your daily routine however you can.
“Aerobic” means that it gets your heart pumping, so gentle exercises like tai chi or some forms of yoga may not do the trick. Instead, try one or more of the following, and banish brain fog for good!
- Running or jogging
- Brisk walking
- Aerobic or “cardio” classes
- Team sports
- Working out on a stair climber, stepper, ski machine, or elliptical
Do you find that you think more clearly when you’re exercising regularly? Please share your thoughts.
“Alzheimer’s Facts and Figures,” Alzheimer’s Association, http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_facts_and_figures.asp.
“Dementia/Alzheimer’s Disease,” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, http://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/basics/mental-illness/dementia.htm.
Carl W. Cotman and Nicole C. Berchtold, “Exercise: a behavioral intervention to enhance brain health and plasticity,” TRENDS in Neuroscience, June 2002; 25(6):295-301, http://resulb.ulb.ac.be/facs/ism/docs/behaviorBDNF.pdf.
Carl W. Cotman, et al., “Exercise builds brain health: key roles of growth factor cascades and inflammation,” TRENDS in Neuroscience, 2007; 30(9):465-472.
Charles H. Hillman, et al., “Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects on brain and cognition,” Nature Reviews Neuroscience, January 2008; 9:58-65, http://www.nature.com/nrn/journal/v9/n1/full/nrn2298.html.
Sandra B. Chapman, et al., “Shorter term aerobic exercise improves brain, cognition, and cardiovascular fitness in aging,” Front Aging Neurosci. November 12, 2013; doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2013.00075, http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnagi.2013.00075/abstract.
The University of Texas at Dallas, “Study Finds Aerobic Exercise Improves Memory, Brain Function and Physical Fitness,” Center for Brain Health, November 12, 2013, http://www.brainhealth.utdallas.edu/blog_page/study-finds-aerobic-exercise-improves-memory-brain-function-and-physical-fi.
Tomporowski PD, “Effects of acute bouts of exercise on cognition,” Acta Psychol (Amst). March 2003; 112(3):297-324, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12595152.
Molteni R, et al, “Voluntary exercise increases axonal regeneration from sensory neurons,” Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, June 1, 2004; 101(22):8473-8, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15159540.
Bjornebekk A, et al., “The antidepressant effect of running is associated with increased hippocampal cell proliferation,” Int J Neuropsychopharmacol., Sep 2005; 8(3):357-68, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15769301.
Andrew S. Whiteman, et al., “Interaction between serum BDNF and aerobic fitness predicts recognition memory in healthy young adults,” Behavioural Brain Research, February 1, 2014; 259:302-312, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0166432813007109.
Blackmore DG, et al., “Exercise increases neural stem cell number in a growth hormone-dependant manner, augmenting the regenerative response in aged mice,” Stem Cells, August 2009; 27(8):2044-52, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19544415.
Laurin D, et al., “Physical activity and risk of cognitive impairment and dementia in elderly persons,” Arch Neurol. March 2001; 58(3):498-504, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11255456.
Rottensteiner M, et al., “Physical activity, fitness, glucose homeostasis, and brain morphology in twins,” Med Sci Sports Exerc. March 2015; 47(3):509-18, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25003773.
“Otago study indicates exercise sharpens the young adult brain,” University of Otago, [Press Release], January 20, 2015, http://www.otago.ac.nz/news/news/otago085413.html.