There is a distant relative of mine who just turned 98 years young and if it wasn’t for her macular degeneration, she could physically and mentally run circles around most people 30 years younger. She’s as mentally sharp, spry and agile as any elderly person I know. What’s her secret? She keeps herself physically active. This woman will walk the perimeter of the inside of her basement for exercise on days when the weather doesn’t permit her getting outdoors. She gardens, pulls weeds, walks the country road she lives on and push mows her own lawn.
The former director of the National Institute on Aging, Robert N. Butler, once said “If exercise could be packaged into a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine in the nation.” Various studies are confirming this statement to be accurate. A study from the journal Neurolmage shows a direct relationship between brain activity, brain function, and physical fitness in elderly men. The men who were more physically fit were found to perform mental tests of selective attention, executive function, and reaction time, better than less fit men. The reason is physically fit men use parts of the brain in the same way when they were younger.
With aging we begin using different areas of our brain. The left side of our prefrontal cortex is used more during younger years for mental tasks involving short term memory or recognizing events, people, or objects from previous encounters. As we age, we favor the right side of the prefrontal cortex for these tasks. The men in the study who had kept themselves physically fit, tended to use the left side or more youthful side of their brains.
Other studies have shown people who keep physically fit into old age tend to have larger brains and less brain atrophy than those who don’t exercise. This leads to better cognitive performance, thinking, and memory skills.
Another factor physical activity may prevent with aging is a decline in the brain’s white matter. White matter is the fiberlike parts of brain cells enabling communication between brain regions. Researchers have examined the structural soundness of white matter in brain scans looking for lesions called “white matter hyperintensities.” These lesions are commonly found in elderly people leading to declines in thinking and memory abilities. What they discovered is the more vigorous exercise the elderly participated in, the less white matter lesions they had.
Exercise is well-documented for maintaining muscle strength, flexibility, stamina, improving bone density, and aiding in an overall well-being. Now it looks like mental aptitude can be added to that list. Even if an elderly person has been physically inactive, it’s not too late to enhance and keep the brain young through exercise. A researcher in Canada recruited 120 inactive older adults; half of them were started on an exercise routine of walking at a moderate pace for 30 to 45 minutes three times a week. The other half did stretching and toning exercises. When MRI scans of their brains were conducted a year later, it was found the hippocampus, a region of the brain involved with memory, was slightly larger in the walking group whereas it had declined slightly in the stretching group. This shows that the aging brain is malleable and can change in a positive direction with regular aerobic exercise. It is believed resistance training would also benefit the brain in the same way.
The key to keeping your brain sharp is to keep moving into old age. If its’ been awhile since you’ve exercised, get clearance from your physician first. Then choose a physical activity you enjoy doing and will stick with it. Start off at your own pace and gradually build up from there. Who knows, maybe you’ll qualify for the Senior Olympics someday and be like Benjamin Buttons, becoming younger as you grow older.