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“In the authors’ opinion, when it comes to maximizing both your physical and mental functioning it is downright risky behavior not to exercise.”  -- Giles O. Einstein and Mark A. McDaniel, authors of Memory Fitness: A Guide to Successful Aging (Yale University Press, 2004)

  Train Your Brain

I learned that Memory Fitness was in the works about five years ago as a participant in the University of  New Mexico Aging Study. Mark A. McDaniel, then chairman of the UNM Psychology Department (now a professor in the memory research at Washington University in St. Louis), spoke at the annual meeting of the Aging Study. He was collaborating on a book on aging and memory with Professor Giles O. Einstein, chairman of the psychology department at Furman University, and asked for topic suggestions. I said I’d like to know more about the effects of exercise on memory and cognitive function. I didn’t think anything more about it until a few weeks ago when I received a letter from McDaniel and Einstein thanking us for our feedback and announcing that the book was now in bookstores.

About a week later I was perusing the book. Memory Fitness has wonderful chapters on, among other thing, how memory works and how it changes with age, techniques and strategies for improving memory in everyday life, how to learn and remember complex material, Alzheimer’s disease—and the effects of mental and physical exercise on memory and brain function.     

The “Mental Exercise and Memory” chapter contains many parallels to physical exercise. For example, the specificity principle applies to memory as well as exercise physiology. “[Generally] challenging your mind with a variety of intellectual activities will help keep your memory decline at a minimum,” the authors write. But intellectual pursuits that specifically challenge your memory, such as playing bridge or studying history, affect memory more. Borrowing an analogy from sports training, Einstein and McDaniel compare general intellectual activity and specific memory practice to running and swimming: “Running will help you keep generally fit, but specializing in swimming improves swimming more than running improves swimming.” 

“The larger lesson here is to stay especially active in mental activities you care most about maintaining,” the authors counsel. In short, use it or lose it.

“The most critical point is that it is not what you do,” say the authors, “but the degree to which you mentally challenge yourself in that activity.” (Sound familiar?)

  Physical Exercise and Mental Function

“There is complete agreement today that when training is built up gradually and done properly, it is dangerous not to exercise,” one of the authors writes (not clear which one). That was not always his view, however. Influenced by the death of a favorite teacher while shoveling snow, he subscribed to the traditional view that people over 50 should take it easy and conserve their fleeting resources. His research for the book turned him into “an impassioned crusader for the value of exercise in older adulthood.”

His newfound passion probably explains the superb section describing the physical decline that occurs with aging, and the specific and powerful benefits of exercise in leveling the downward slope. The detailed and concise accounts of what age does to the cardiovascular, respiratory, muscular and skeletal systems--and the effects of physical exercise on those systems--are among the best I’ve seen. Definitely recommend reading.

What’s new, however, is the “strong recent evidence” that exercise improves mental functioning, exactly what I hoped for when filling out Dr. McDaniel’s survey questionnaire five years ago.

The first and most obvious benefit of exercise is emotional well-being. We tend to be depressed more often as we age. According to the authors, about 15% of older adults report feeling depressed. What's more, the suicide rate goes up with age.

One factor that contributes to depression, according to McDaniel and Einstein, is a sense of losing control of our lives. We can’t do the things we once could, and we’re forced to depend on others. Exercise helps to alleviate the problem. “To the extent that exercise enables you to maintain your physical capabilities,” the authors explain, “this should positively affect your sense of personal control and thus your emotional outlook on life—with the result that depression may be reduced or avoided altogether.” That makes perfect sense and, according to the authors, is well supported by the literature.

The other benefits of exercise are a bit more complicated and more specific in the effect on the brain.

Endurance or aerobic exercise is thought to increase oxygen to the brain, resulting in improved cognitive function. “Cardiovascular exercise has been shown to increase the stroke volume of the heart and oxygen transportation to the brain,” the authors write. Exercise also appears to stimulate new capillary growth in the brain, which would allow more oxygen to reach brain cells. In one “provocative” study cited by the authors, younger and older rats were raised in an environment that encouraged exercise, but not intellectual stimulation. Another group was given intellectual stimulation but not allowed to exercise. Interestingly, the rats that exercised showed more capillary development in the brain, but those given intellectual stimulation showed more neuronal development (synaptic connections, receptor sites, etc.). “These data strongly suggest that exercise imparts important advantages to the brains of both younger and older animals,” Einstein and McDaniel conclude.

Exercise and intellectual stimulation should be a dynamic duo.

We know that exercise improves oxygen flow to the brain, but does it actually benefit cognitive functioning? Researchers have addressed this issue from more than one angle. First, they compared cognitive function of people who exercise regularly with sedentary people of the same age. “The majority of studies show that exercisers perform better on cognitive tasks than nonexercisers,” report the authors. “Most exciting, the pattern of results suggests that exercise may confer the most benefit on the kinds of mental tasks that are most affected by aging.” For example, aging tends to reduce the ability to retrieve information from memory without using cues (essay questions versus multiple choice). “Exercise may protect against this reduction,” say the authors.

Still, the difference in memory could be due to something other than exercise. Maybe people who exercise  take better care of themselves or perhaps they are genetically less affected by aging. To answer this question scientists use the experimental approach. They take groups of sedentary older people and put half of them on an exercise program for several months, and then compare the groups on varies cognitive tests. The groups must be equal in cognitive abilities at the start, of course. “Experiments of this sort have shown that exercise can produce substantial benefits on some tasks but not others,” report the authors.

An examination of prior studies found that exercise mainly helped individuals perform tasks controlled by the frontal lobes of the brain. “This is interesting,” the authors write, “because there is strong evidence today that our frontal lobes show the earliest and greatest amount of age associated losses.” According to the authors, the frontal lobes are thought to be responsible for working memory (keeping information in mind while being distracted) and executive control processes (planning and coordinating complex tasks).

Studies specifically designed to confirm this hypothesis, according to Einstein and McDaniel, show that groups performing aerobic exercise do in fact demonstrate significant improvements in tasks thought to involve the frontal lobes, but not in other tasks. (See the book for details.) Significantly, the mental abilities most improved by aerobic exercise are those that appear to be most negatively affected by aging.

Research on exercise and mental functioning is “increasing at a feverish pace,” the author report enthusiastically. Most of the research to date has involved aerobic exercise, but the effect of strength training is now being explored. Encouragingly, it was reported in 2001 “that the benefits of exercise on memory are greater when people mix resistance training with cardiovascular training and with intense cardiovascular exercise relative to moderate exercise.”

Hmmm. Seems that weights and high intensity aerobics may do more than keep us lean and mean. Clearly, the Greeks were right about a sound mind in a sound body. Use both as you age or risk losing both prematurely.

For many more fascinating details on training your brain pick up a copy of Memory Fitness at your local bookstore or order from Amazon.com. 

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