Aerobic exercise is beneficial for just about everyone and may be especially important for the aging population. For years, researchers have identified a link between exercise and brain health—even in small doses. Finally, scientists from the University of Texas (UT) Southwestern Medical Center have figured out why exercise may improve memory and cognitive functioning.
A recent study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, found aerobic exercise boosts blood flow to two regions of the brain connected to memory function. These findings prove, once again, aerobic exercise may lower risks of neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.
What did the researchers find?
The researchers analyzed 30 participants, 60 years old or older, with preexisting memory problems. Brain-imaging scans and memory scores were taken at the start of the study, and the participants were split into two groups.
One group engaged in aerobic exercise training for a year, while the other group routinely stretched. Both groups trained for 25 to 30 minutes, three times per week.
After analyzing new brain scans and memory tests at the end of the 12-month period, researchers noticed a 47% improvement in the exercise group’s memory scores, and they had a clue as to why.
The group who participated in aerobic exercise showed increased blood flow to the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the hippocampus. The ACC plays a role in attention and memory, while the hippocampus affects both short- and long-term memory functions.
Why does this matter?
The study reveals that exercise not only affects brain health but that it may be able to improve or even reverse existing memory loss.
“We’ve shown that even when your memory starts to fade, you can still do something about it by adding aerobic exercise to your lifestyle,” senior researcher Binu Thomas, Ph.D., said in a news release.
The study also pinpoints the mechanisms responsible for improving memory and brain health, which can lead scientists one step closer to understanding neurodegenerative disorders.
“Cerebral blood flow is a part of the puzzle, and we need to continue piecing it together,” Thomas said. “But we’ve seen enough data to know that starting a fitness program can have lifelong benefits for our brains as well as our hearts.”