Stay active throughout your life, and you may be able to ward off memory loss. According to a study published in a recent issue of Neurology, regular exercise into old age may be more effective than mental activity at preventing ‘brain shrinkage’. The study involved more than 600 men and women with an average age of 70 years. Participants underwent an MRI brain scan and reported their activity level on a six-point scale, ranging from minimal movement only for necessary housework to more strenuous forms of exercise such as organized sports several times per week. They were also asked to report whether or not they took part in mental activities such as reading or playing stimulating games.
Three years later, at the age of 73, participants were given another MRI brain scan. Those who regularly exercised ‘experienced less brain shrinkage and less damage to the brain’s wiring,’ the study’s lead author, Alan Gow, told Best Health. Social and intellectual activities did not appear to have an effect on the structural health of the participants’ brains, he says.
The researchers also examined white and grey matter in the brain. ‘White matter is the wiring that transmits messages around the brain, and white matter lesions are clusters of dead cells in the white matter, which may disrupt the flow of information between specific areas of the brain,’ Gow says. ‘The grey matter is the parts of the brain with nerve cells’ bodies.’ Regular exercisers had fewer damaged areas in the white matter, and more grey matter overall, according to the MRI scans.
What is brain shrinkage?
Also known as brain atrophy, brain shrinkage is a term used to describe the ‘loss or shrinkage of brain tissue and the enlargement of the fluid spaces,’ says Gow. ‘A degree of atrophy is to be expected with age, but there is variation in the extent of shrinkage experienced across individuals.’ Research has associated this with ‘poorer cognitive performance,’ meaning a decrease in thinking skills and memory abilities, says Gow. The findings of the study (outlined above) support the idea that exercise may help to maintain a healthy brain.