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 Exercise Can Slow Down Brain Aging By 10 Years: Headlinesandglobalnews.com (March 26, 2016)

Brains of Overweight People 10 Years Older Than Lean Counterparts: Techtimes.com (August 8, 2016)


Exercise and Leanness Combine to Keep Brain Young

Studies on both sides of the Atlantic confirm that lifestyle affects brain function. Reported mere months apart, the studies are good news for aging trainers who strive to stay lean and functional. The researchers would seem ripe for collaboration, but none is apparent.

Joshua Z. Willey, MD, and colleagues from the Universities of Columbia and Miami reported March 23, 2016, in the journal Neurology that people who reported moderate to high intensity exercise had brains 10 years younger than those who reported light or no exercise. They, however, acknowledged that “further studies are…required to understand the mechanism of action.” As if hearing the call, researchers from the Cambridge Centre for Aging and Neuroscience in the UK reported several months later that overweight subjects were found to have white matter shrinkage in their brain comparable to a lean person 10 years older. (Neurobiology of Aging, July 27, 2016)

The two studies together underline that healthy living helps to keep our brain young longer. The details reinforce the message.  

Exercise Slows Cognitive Decline

Dr. Willey’s team asked 1,228 participants (mean age 71) how long and how much they exercised during the two weeks leading up to the study. Subjects were then asked to take memory and thinking tests and undergo MRI brain scans, and then repeat exams five years later. (876 follow-up participants)

Ninety percent of participants reported light (maximum activity less than 6 METs) or no exercise (less than 10 minutes), and the other 10 percent reported moderate to high intensity exercise (maximum activity 6 METS or greater). Light exercise included activities such as yoga and walking your dog, while moderate to intense exercise included activities such as running and walking briskly uphill. (One MET is defined as the energy required to sit quietly.)

Participants doing light or no exercise showed significantly more cognitive decline than those in the moderate to high intensity exercise group.

“In this racially/ethnically diverse cohort of older adults, we found that, compared to moderate-heavy leisure-time physical activity, no or low LTPA was associated with a greater decline in processing speed among all participants, and episodic memory among those unimpaired at baseline,” the authors wrote.  “The degree of decline was equivalent to the expected decline associated with approximately 10 years of cognitive aging.”

“Physical activity is an attractive option to reduce the burden of cognitive impairment in public health because it is low cost and doesn't interfere with medications,” senior researcher Dr. Clinton Wright said. “Our results suggest that moderate to intense exercise may help older people delay aging of the brain, but more research from randomized clinical trials comparing exercise programs to more sedentary activity is needed to confirm these results.”

Obesity Shrinks Brain in Midlife

It’s a twofer for exercise. It helps keep us lean—and our brain young in middle age.

Dr. Lisa Ronan (Brain Mapping Unit, Department of Psychiatry, Cambridge University, UK) and a team of researchers reported “that cerebral white-matter volume in overweight and obese individuals was associated with a greater degree of atrophy, with maximal effects in middle-age corresponding to an estimated increase of brain age of 10 years.” (Neurobiology of Aging, July 27, 2016)

An overweight person at 50, for example, was found to have white matter volume comparable to a lean person of 60. (See example below)

White matter is the tissue that connects areas of the brain and allows for information to be communicated between regions.

Our brains naturally shrink and lose white matter with age. Obesity (linked to diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease) has been increasingly recognized to accelerate age-related changes in the brain. Ronan et al zeroed in on that connection with an eye to how intervention might mitigate both obesity and brain degeneration.

Co-author Professor Sadaf Farooqi, from the Wellcome Trust–Medical Research Council Institute of Metabolic Science at Cambridge, says: “We don’t yet know the implications of these changes in brain structure. Clearly, this must be a starting point for us to explore in more depth the effects of weight, diet and exercise on the brain and memory.” (Cambridge Research, August 4, 2016)

While Ronan’s team found no connection between being overweight or obese and a person’s IQ, brain shrinkage is clearly a serious problem in middle age and beyond.

“These results support the hypothesis that adiposity confers a significant risk of neurodegeneration and cognitive decline,” Ronan et al concluded.

*See example of grey matter and white matter in a lean person age 56 and an obese person age 50: http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/brains-of-overweight-people-ten-years-older-than-lean-counterparts-at-middle-age

*  *  *

Perhaps the UK researchers and the team from the USA can pool their findings and study the effects of exercise and weight management on brain structure and cognitive abilities. Clinical trials would probably be difficult to organize and finance, but analyzing the combined data might be productive.

See also Physical and Mental Exercise Combine to Keep the Brain Fit and Healthy—and Reduce Alzheimer’s by 60%: http://www.cbass.com/BrainandExercise.htm 

December 1, 2016

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