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Published on: April 16, 2014
by Nicole Niemiec for Prevention:
The claim: Cardio isn’t only good for the heart and waistline—according to new research, it may also be good for the brain. In older women with mild memory and cognitive problems, aerobic exercise significantly increases brain volume in the area responsible for memory, says a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
The research: Researchers at the University of British Columbia conducted MRIs on 39 women ages 70 to 80. All of the subjects had signs of mild cognitive impairment (MCI)—memory problems that are worse than normal age-related memory loss but not severe enough to be considered dementia.
The women were randomly assigned to one of three 6-month, twice-weekly exercise programs: aerobic training, full-body resistance training, or gentle balance and range of motion training. After 6 months, a second round of MRIs found that aerobic training increased the volume of the hippocampus—a brain region that plays an important role in the mind’s ability to store and retrieve information—by 4%, while resistance training and balance and tone training had no significant impact.
What it means: Aerobic training may increase levels of proteins that enhance the brain’s ability to send and receive information, says lead researcher Theresa Liu-Ambrose, PhD, associate professor at the University of British Columbia. Hippocampal volume shrinks 1-2% anually in older adults, which means that six months of aerobic training may reverse age-related loss by two years. Previous research has found that regular activity can also reduce dementia risk by up to 50%.
The bottom line: Aerobic exercise may be effective in maintaining the hippocampus in those with high risk for dementia, Dr. Liu-Ambrose says. There is growing evidence that exercise is beneficial for brain health, she adds. “Physical activity should be a standard recommendation for all older adults regardless of cognitive status.”
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