It’s common knowledge that exercise can help older adults preserve (and even increase) their muscular strength, strengthen their cardiovascular system, help them maintain healthy body weight, and fight off several health-related issues such as diabetes and high blood pressure. What is less well known is that exercise can also help older adults boost their cognitive skills and improve their memory.
A December 2017 guideline published by the medical journal for the American Academy of Neurology recommends that medical practitioners treat their patients who have mild cognitive impairment by having them exercise for two hours each week. Mild cognitive impairment – or MCI – is an intermediate stage between the expected normal cognitive decline associated with aging and the more serious decline of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. According to the American Academy of Neurology, approximately 6% of people in their 60s have MCI, increasing to about 37% in people 85 and older. Generally, the cognitive decline associated with MCI includes problems associated with memory, language, thinking, and judgment, although it is not severe enough to interfere with day-to-day life.
Dr. Vernon Williams, a sports neurologist and the director of The Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Center in Los Angeles, explains that regular aerobic exercise appears to increase the size of the hippocampus – the part of the brain that is responsible for learning and memory. He notes that “exercise can change the brain for the better, and by doing so, it can help to protect thinking skills and memory in anybody,” but specifically in older adults. According to Michael Yassa, UCI professor and Chancellor’s Fellow of neurobiology and behavior, the hippocampus is critical for the creation of new memories. It is one of the first areas of the brain to deteriorate as we age, particularly in those with Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Yassa notes, “Improving function of the hippocampus holds much promise for improving memory in everyday settings.”
Dr. Scott McGinnis, a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School, explains studies have suggested that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory (the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex) are larger in size in people who exercise than in those who don’t. “Even more exciting is the finding that engaging in a program of regular exercise of moderate intensity over six months or a year is associated with an increase in the volume of selected brain regions,” said Dr. McGinnis. In addition to expanding the hippocampus, exercise also improves mood and sleep and decreases stress and anxiety – areas that frequently cause or contribute to cognitive impairment.
Remember to Exercise; Exercise to Remember
According to Dr. Ronald Petersen, director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center, Mayo Clinic, and the Mayo Clinic Study of Aging, we no longer need not look at aging as a passive process – we can do something about the course of aging. In particular, he notes, “if I’m destined to become cognitively impaired at age 72, I can exercise and push that back to 75 or 78. That’s a big deal.”
Utah Attorney Greg Bishop suggests that you think of exercise as a prescription for improving not just your physical health, but your mental well-being as well. Based on recent studies, he recommends exercising at a moderate intensity – enough to elevate your heart rate and work up at least a slight sweat – for a minimum of 150 minutes every week. He indicates that maintaining this level of aerobic exercise will help you preserve your cognitive health (although he cautions that studies have concluded it will take at least 6 months before you are likely to see direct cognitive improvement).
About Greg Bishop, Attorney
Greg Bishop is a business-oriented corporate attorney who always strives for improvement. He makes it a practice to only hire people who are smarter than him so that his team can raise the bar in helping the company be successful. Currently residing in Salt Lake City, Utah, he is passionate about living life to the fullest and helping others reach their full potential.
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