Exercise may improve the power of people's brain cells and can lead to improvement in brain function and memory.
Movement Linked to Better Memory
People whose ability to remember things, think, or make decisions is mildly impaired — a condition known as mild cognitive impairment — may benefit from an exercise routine. A study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that memory and brain function of people with mild cognitive impairment seemed to get a boost by regularly walking on a treadmill.
Exercise boosts memory and brain function
In this study, 17 older adults diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment and 18 healthy older adults (control group) participated in a 12-week exercise program of supervised treadmill walking at moderate intensity. The participants gradually worked up to walking 30 minutes, four times a week, and completed a total of 44 sessions. Both groups participated in pre-intervention tests including an exercise test, memory tests, and a functional magnetic resonance imaging test that measures brain activity.
Both the mild cognitive impairment and control groups experienced significant changes:
- cardiorespiratory fitness increased by approximately 10% on a treadmill exercise test;
- list-learning and learning by repetition memory tests improved; and
- brain function during a memory task (measured by imaging) improved.
The study authors comment, “While these cognitive improvements did not differ statistically between the groups, the quality of the cognitive improvement in [the mild cognitive impairment] participants was remarkable given their history of cognitive decline and likelihood for future cognitive decline.”
The authors conclude that exercise may improve the power of our brain cells and can lead to improvement in brain function and memory. Further research is needed to determine if exercise can help delay further cognitive impairment in people who already have brain impairment.
Brain drainers and boosters
Research has shown that 40% of people diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment will go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease within a four-year period, according to the study authors. As a result, researchers know that it is very important to identify activities and lifestyle changes that can help these people improve their brain function and optimize their ability to delay further impairment. Here are some brain drainers and boosters to keep in mind when thinking about brain health:
- Excess alcohol. Drinking too much alcohol is damaging for the brain and can definitely decrease a person’s ability to think and remember things.
- Smoking. Smoking has a bad effect on the blood vessels that feed the brain as well as the vessels in the rest of the body and can decrease your memory. Smoking is a brain drainer.
Many medical conditions and medications can affect the way we think. If you experience symptoms of brain impairment such as memory loss, or difficulty thinking, it is important that you see a doctor for diagnosis and treatment. Also, check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program.
- Exercise. Exercise is a known brain booster as supported by this study and many others and has also been shown to help prevent and treat other chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. The key is to exercise regularly, and stick with it. Research suggests that boredom, taking the time, and low energy affect whether or not a person exercises, so don’t let a little lack of motivation keep you from being physically active!
- Mind games. Play games or solve puzzles, crosswords, or Sudoku to stimulate your mind and get your brain cells firing. Research has shown that engaging in such activities regularly can help improve memory.
- Whole and healthy foods. Our diet plays a huge role in how we feel, how our body functions, and our brain’s ability to think. Eat a balanced diet with a good source of protein, plenty of vegetables, fruit, and other whole foods. Limit processed and high-fat, high-sugar foods.
- Active social life. Get out and join friends and family in activities that stimulate your mind. While occasionally sitting around on the couch doing nothing is good for you, doing this for many hours on a daily basis is a brain drainer.
(J Alzheimer’s Dis 2013 Jan 1;37:197-215. doi: 10.3233/JAD-130467)
Jane Hart, MD, board-certified in internal medicine, serves in a variety of professional roles including consultant, journalist, and educator. Dr. Hart, a Clinical Instructor at Case Medical School in Cleveland, Ohio, writes extensively about health and wellness and a variety of other topics for nationally recognized organizations, websites, and print publications. Sought out for her expertise in the areas of integrative and preventive medicine, she is frequently quoted by national and local media. Dr. Hart is a professional lecturer for healthcare professionals, consumers, and youth and is a regular corporate speaker.
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