Exercise really does slow brain aging and boosts functioning in older people. Scientists reveal why

As Americans continue to outlive previous generations thanks to advances in medicine, aging gracefully has become a feat in itself. Science has long backed that maintaining good health through exercise has many benefits — and research shows that’s particularly the case for brain health in seniors.

A cognition study conducted out of UC San Francisco found when elderly people maintain an active lifestyle, a production of special proteins are generated that enhance connections between neurons for healthy cognition. This enhanced nerve transition was shown to have a protective impact, even in autopsies of people who showed neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease. 

“Our work is the first that uses human data to show that synaptic protein regulation is related to physical activity and may drive the beneficial cognitive outcomes we see,” says study lead author Kaitlin Casaletto, PhD, an assistant professor of neurology at UCSF, in a statement.

Casaletto and her colleague, Dr. William Honer, senior author of the study and a professor of psychiatry from the University of British Columbia, observed data from a previous study conducted out of Chicago. The Memory and Aging Project at Rush University tracked physical activity of elderly patients who agreed to donate their brains after they died. They show that the elderly who exercised had higher levels of proteins that transmit information between neurons. 

The scientists propose that maintaining the connections between neurons may help fend off dementia and boost synaptic functioning. Honer had previously found the effects extended beyond the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory. Other regions of the brain responsible for cognitive function were positively impacted, as well.

Synaptic integrity, generated through physical activity from the healthy function of proteins, has the ability to prevent Alzheimer’s disease causing processes to occur. As people age, many adults accumulate two toxic proteins, amyloid and tau, that are common proteins found throughout the brain of those with Alzheimer’s disease. 

Researchers are able to observe spinal fluid of living adults and autopsied brain tissue from those no longer living to identify the relationship between neurodegeneration and amyloid and tau. Taking both studies into account, researchers conclude that maintaining synaptic integrity of the brain through exercise has benefits to support a reduced incidence of proteins causing cognitive impairment, such as those found in Alzheimer’s disease.

A healthy lifestyle that includes exercise could provide both short-term and long-term positive effects.This study first appeared in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.

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About the Author

Steve Fink

Steve Fink is the Editor-in-Chief of BrainTomorrow.com, GutNews.com and StudyFinds.com. He is formerly the Vice President of News Engagement for CBS Television Stations’ websites, and spent 20 years with CBS.

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