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Exercise may preserve brain better than games
October 23rd, 2012
04:11 PM ET

Exercise may preserve brain better than games

One of the sad realities about Alzheimer's disease is that there's no way of preventing it – at least not yet.  We know some people are genetically or biologically at greater risk than others, but researchers want to find out how we can fight it off, or at least delay it.

The strongest evidence for a lifestyle choice associated with Alzheimer's prevention is exercise.  A new study in the journal Neurology supports that, and also suggests that working out is more effective at protecting the brain than cognitive challenges such as games and puzzles.

Researchers studied a group of nearly 700 participants from Scotland, all born in 1936, who reported their leisure and physical activity levels at age 70.  They rated physical activity on a scale from "moving only in connection with necessary (household) chores" to "keep-fit/heavy exercise or competitive sport several times per week," the study said.  Participants also rated how often they engaged in various social and intellectual activities.

Then, at age 73, the scientists used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure certain biomarkers in the brain among these participants.

It appears that people who participated in more physical activity generally showed less brain shrinkage and fewer white matter lesions, both of which can be signs of Alzheimer's disease.

Gray matter mostly consists of nerve cells, neurons, and primarily is linked with processing and cognition, according to the Alzheimer's Association.  White matter, on the other hand, is mainly composed of nerve fibers, and coordinates communication between various brain regions.

Researchers found that intellectual and social engagement weren't as helpful to the brain, although there have been hints that these also carry benefits.

The results of this study are not surprising to Heather Snyder, senior associate director for medical and scientific relations at the Alzheimer's Association, who was not involved in the study.  Physical activity helps to promote a healthy heart, and the well-being of the heart and brain are interrelated.  An unhealthy heart isn't as efficient at pumping blood, which the brain needs.

"In terms of the exact mechanism, there's a lot that we don't know," she said.

Cognitive exercises don’t hurt, but the strongest evidence from research conducted so far suggests exercise helps prevent Alzheimer's later in life, Snyder said.

As to how much exercise is optimal, what kind, or whether it's too late to start amping up physical activity after a certain age, researchers aren't sure, Snyder said.

Hints are emerging, however.  Research presented at the Alzheimer's Association's International Conference in July suggests that strength training could be the best exercise intervention.

Among the small studies presented, one demonstrated that women between ages 70 and 80 benefited from weight-lifting, walking and balance exercises, but those who used weights showed the most improvement.  Scientists found that people who began with the highest cognitive baseline responded the best in this study.

What's needed is a long-term, large-scale study to track a lot of people over time, so that researchers can more definitively examine the benefits of different kinds of exercise, and how much and how often different activities should be done to gain the most Alzheimer's protection, Snyder said.


soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. Mellisa

    Just wanted to add there was a new research about how slow exercise can really help put muscle on old people.
    Source – http://neatbodies.com/?p=224
    Basically slow lifts are attributed to strength training and are key to generate more tension.

    October 23, 2012 at 18:19 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Coach, PT

      Yes "slow" or static lifting can add muscle mass. However that kind of training does not produce functional fitness or illicit the neurological adaptation that older people need in order to make those muscles useful! I am sure that any 70 year old would much rather be able to get up and down, walk around, "deadlift" grocery bags off the front step, get boxes of christmas decorations off the top shelf, and be able to react quickly rather than pack on muscle mass to look good.

      October 24, 2012 at 00:56 | Report abuse |
  2. amashaw

    Great story. I am a Geriatrician in a small, rural town in Virginia. I always enjoy asking my elders what keeps them so young. Inevitably it is that they exercise and keep their days full of activities. http://www.doctormash.com

    October 23, 2012 at 21:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. OregonTom

    Remember to walk your puppy :)

    October 23, 2012 at 21:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. moe smith

    Exercise = high oxygen flow throughout the entire body.

    sitting on your duff = low oxygen flow throughout the entire body.

    what happens when organs dont get enough O2? DEGENERATION.

    welcome to 18 years ago. this isn't news.

    October 23, 2012 at 21:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Humanist11

    There is a 95 year old man who works out at our gym and works harder than most. He is strong, mentally sharp and kind as can be. There must be something to this exercise stuff!

    October 23, 2012 at 21:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. erin111

    There is nothing better then exercise to oxygenate the brain and oxygen is a key to the brain's performance. Schools in America remove recess from the schedule and cut PE to the minimum.......shell we sue the school system for hurting our children? There is no other argument they would listen to.

    October 23, 2012 at 22:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Heriberto Rodriguez

    Duh! ... That's not new, we've known that for centuries..

    October 23, 2012 at 22:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Taryn

    This article shows the additive interaction between moderate physical exercise and computer use (cognitive activity)– so truly BOTH is better than each individually!

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22560523

    October 23, 2012 at 23:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Druber

    There are multiple longitudinal studies that have been giving us information such as this for generations. Unfortunately the majority of Americans are too physically and nutritionally ignorant and lazy to care. The easier and less responsible our lives are, the better, apparently. Most of us would rather take a pill even though exercise lowers healthcare costs, enhances nervous, muscle, skeletal, cardiovascular, endocrine, immune, digestive function, etc. Also, it helps us live longer, more vigorous and happier lives. Our healthcare is too expensive mostly because we are lazy, obese and dying from chronic health-related disease for half of our lives or longer. We are kept alive, artificially, by a healthcare system that profits from our poor choices.

    October 23, 2012 at 23:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. SeattleMike5

    Walking your "puppy" doesn't have a danged thing to do with real exercise.

    October 24, 2012 at 03:42 | Report abuse | Reply
    • timhugoberry

      i do agree with your article : Exercise may preserve brain better than games. Most of people like playing games instead of exercising but why there are billions of games in the internet :) and i really like diego games

      October 24, 2012 at 04:48 | Report abuse |
    • EJ

      You have the wrong puppy. I can introduce you to one who loves to run 3-5 miles a day.

      November 13, 2012 at 12:53 | Report abuse |
  11. jane goldberg

    After reading this article, I am going to walk two miles everyday- even inside in bad weather and time myself.
    Thank you for informing us.

    October 25, 2012 at 21:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Shelley Ferguson

    Since I changed my lifestyle to include exercising 3-4 times a week after reading a review at how2reducefatfast.com I have noticed how much more alert and focussed I am. I also changed my diet at the same time, so that may have a bearing, but I certainly agree that being physically active will help your cognitive function and even keep illnesses like Alzheimer’s and dementia in later life at bay.

    October 29, 2012 at 10:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Frank Mlinar

    I have been regularly exercising for the last 50 years. It works for me.

    December 2, 2012 at 10:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Justin C. Duke

    Goes to show that exercise is truly the answer in help keeping us healthy in more ways the the most common one. "physical"

    January 26, 2013 at 13:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. WildeChantal

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    February 12, 2013 at 02:46 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.