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Indigenous Lifestyle Keeps Brain Young

More on Exercise and the Brain

Researchers have long believed what’s good for the heart is good for the brain. We have many studies fleshing out the details. The latest are compelling.

An Amazonian tribe of hunter-gatherers have been found to have much healthier hearts and brains than the rest of us.

The first study, published in 2017, found them to have the lowest level of coronary artery disease ever recorded.

The second study, published May 26, 2021, in The Journal of Gerontology, examines the aging of the tribal brain as reflected in brain shrinkage. We’ll examine this study in depth, and then look at several more pieces on exercise and brain health.

Study of the Tsimane

Not having access to the new study, we turned to an article by Peter Dockrill in Science Alert (June 2, 2021) for details.

The Tsimane, an indigenous people isolated in the Bolivian peripheries of the Amazon rainforest, still live by traditional ways of farming, hunting, gathering, and fishing.

It turns out that their healthy hearts are only the beginning of what they have to teach us. New evidence shows that the Tsimane also exhibit significantly less brain atrophy as they get older, showing a much slower decrease in brain volume than people in the US and Europe, and likely lowering their risk of cognitive impairment, functional decline, and dementia.

"The Tsimane have provided us with an amazing natural experiment on the potentially detrimental effects of modern lifestyles on our health," says University of Southern California neuroscientist Andrei Irimia, lead author of the new study. "These findings suggest that brain atrophy may be slowed substantially by the same lifestyle factors associated with very low risk of heart disease."

While the heart health enjoyed by the Tsimane would likely be tied to other health improvements, the new results are nonetheless a bit of a surprise.

One conundrum is that a lack of medical care brings about greater levels of inflammation among the Tsimane.

As Mr. Dockrill explains, systemic inflammation predicts greater brain atrophy, suggesting that the Tsimane might experience greater levels of brain shrinking, or alternatively have less risk of it due to their lean diets and physically active lifestyles.

The new results answer that question, suggesting that cardiovascular fitness is ultimately more important for healthy brain aging than inflammation factors tied to infectious diseases.

The details are impressive—and motivating.

*  * *

The researchers enrolled 746 Tsimane adults, aged between 40 and 94, and measured their brain volume.

The scans—which involved taking participants on a two-day bus trip to the nearest city—showed that, on average, Tsimane individuals experience slower reductions in brain volume as they get older, when compared to cohorts analyzed in previous studies, involving populations from Hamburg (Germany), St. Louis (USA), or Rotterdam (The Netherlands).

"Despite its limitations, this study suggests that brain atrophy may be slowed substantially by lifestyles associated with very low cardiovascular disease risk, and that there is ample scope for interventions to improve brain health, even in the presence of chronically high systemic inflammation," the researchers observed in their paper.

Ultimately, the comparison suggests industrialized lifestyles come with an approximate 70 percent increase in the rates of age-dependent brain volume reduction.

"Our sedentary lifestyle and diet rich in sugars and fats may be accelerating the loss of brain tissue with age and making us more vulnerable to diseases such as Alzheimer's," says senior author and anthropologist Hillard Kaplan from Chapman University, who has studied the Tsimane for nearly two decades.

"The Tsimane can serve as a baseline for healthy brain aging."

Andrei Irimia et al concluded: Our results indicate that the Tsimane exhibit a significantly slower decrease in brain volume with age than populations in the U.S. and Europe. Such reduced rates of brain volume decrease, together with a subsistence lifestyle and low cardiovascular disease risk, may protect brain health despite considerable chronic inflammation related to infectious burden.

You’ll find more details in Peter Dockrill’s article: https://www.sciencealert.com/amazing-natural-experiment-in-this-amazonian-tribe-brains-don-t-shrink-like-ours

*  *  *

More on Exercise and Brain Health

Brain health is on a roll. We’ve had three more pieces called to our attention. We’ll start with the oldest, a study published January 2020 in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

Exercise Protects Brain’s Outer Layer

We learned about the study in a piece by Selene Yeager on the Runner’s World website.

We know that sitting all day is bad for our health. But this study brings some good news: A daily bout of exercise can protect your brain, even if you’re otherwise sedentary.

Taking a daily bike ride, jog, or brisk walk can still help keep your brain healthy.

Here's how:

It helps keep your brain’s cortex—the outermost layer—thick and healthy. With age, the cortex naturally thins, which has been associated with age-related cognitive decline, especially when it occurs in the frontal and temporal lobes, which are responsible for memory, attention, and planning.

A daily bout of exercise is another way to help keep your brain going strong.

*  *  *

I’ve found that getting up and moving every joint in my body every hour or so makes me more productive—and suggest doing that to the desk bound whenever possible. It just feels good. (It helped me spot an error in what I just wrote.)

Brisk Walking Improves Brain Health and Memory

Brisk walking improves brain health and thinking in aging people with memory impairments, according to a yearlong study of mild cognitive impairment and exercise. In the study, middle-aged and older people with early signs of memory loss raised their cognitive scores after they started walking frequently. Regular exercise amplified the healthy flow of blood to their brains. The changes in their brains and minds were subtle but consequential, the study concludes, and could have implications not just for those with serious memory problems, but for any of us whose memories are starting to fade with age.

Most of us, as we get older, will find that our ability to remember and think dulls a bit. This is considered normal, if annoying.

Gretchen Reynolds reported the details in her column in the New York Times: https://dnyuz.com/2021/03/31/brisk-walking-is-good-for-the-aging-brain/ 

No one does a better job than Gretchen of explaining technical details in language her readers can understand. The details are quite interesting, and not to be glossed over.

Here’s what the researchers concluded, with the abbreviations (AET, CBF, & MCI) spelled out: Aerobic exercise training reduced central arterial stiffness and increased cerebral blood flow which may precede its effects on neurocognitive function in patients with mild cognitive impairment.

Mild cognitive impairment is not dementia, but people with the condition are at heightened risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Inside the Brain during Exercise

This paper by Arash Javanbakht, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Wayne State University, appeared a few days ago on The Conversation and has been reproduced numerous places since then. It is filled with information on what happens inside your brain when you exercise. I’ll touch on a few points I found especially interesting, and then provide a link to the entire article. 

Javanbakht, a practicing psychiatrist as well as a researcher, begins by telling of his own conversion to an active lifestyle, and how he began “telling patients to take their exercise pills.”

If I needed a psychiatrist, he’s the kind I’d want.

Dr. Javanbakht writes that exercise does more than build the body and make you feel better. It improves your brain.

For example, he says that exercise improves the clinical symptoms of anxiety and depression.

In a study that I conducted with others among refugee children, we found a reduction in symptoms of anxiety and PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder] among children who attended eight to 12 weeks of dance and movement therapies.

He says that exercise, especially high-intensity exercise, may bring about “a calmer internal physical environment to the brain.”

*  *  *

He agrees that we each have to find a type of exercise that works for us, that we enjoy and want to keep doing.

Try a diverse group of activities and see which one you will like more: running, walking, dancing, biking, kayaking, boxing, weights, swimming. You can even rotate between some or make seasonal changes to avoid boredom. It does not even have to be called an exercise. Whatever ups your heartbeat, even dancing with the TV ads or playing with the kids.

Dr. Javanbakht is right on about doing the type of exercise that lights your fire.
I've found that a combination of strength and aerobic exercise stimulates both my body and my mind.
(Photo by Carol Bass)

His parting message is aimed at all of us: Even if you do not feel anxious or depressed, still take the exercise pills. Use them for protecting your brain.

I’ve only scratched the surface of Dr. Javanbakht’s insightful message. Here’s a link to the entire article:  https://qz.com/2018965/how-exercise-protects-the-brain-against-depression-and-anxiety/

*  *  *

The message in all of the above is captured by our friend Denis Reno in every issue of his Weightlifter’s Newsletter: “Stay strong, happy and healthy, and KEEP MOVING."

July 1, 2021

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