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New Study Shows Moderate Exercise Can Stop Your Brain From Shrinking

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As we age, things aren’t necessarily as easy as they used to be. I can remember when I was 22, I could jump out of bed at 5 am after a long night of drinking, head into work and not feel a thing. Now, if my alarm goes off at 7 am, I am instantly startled and feel like I went to bed at 5 am. When, in fact, I had been sleeping soundly since 9 or 10 pm. Now think about what happens to our brains as we age. I’ve been experiencing this lately with an elderly father who can’t seem to form short term memories. But he does remember something that happened in 1962, down to what he was wearing or ate for supper. The point is, our bodies change as we age, so we need to be prepared for that.

Researchers believe that middle-aged and elderly Americans, who regularly did one hour of light exercise during their weekly routine had larger brains on average than those who didn’t. One consequence of aging is a slow, but steady decline in our brain size. In fact, we lose an average of 0.2 percent in volume every year past the age of 60. What’s interesting is that scientists use brain shrinkage as a proxy for measuring a person’s “brain age” and their risk of debilitating neurodegenerative ailments.

“We broadly assessed brain aging using MRI scans to determine the total brain volume in relation to an individual’s intracranial (skull) volume. In other words, there shouldn’t be very much extra space in the skull that is not filled by brain tissue. If we see lots of extra space, this suggests that the brain may have atrophied or shrunk. This brain atrophy is linked to dementia.”

Nicole Spartano, Endocrinologist, Boston University’s School of Medicine

The study tracks the health of residents living in Farmingham, Massachusetts through a battery of tests, periodically over several decades. In fact, the project began in 1948 and is still going strong. What’s really interesting is that the study now involves the children and grandchildren of the original volunteers. Spartano and her team looked at data from more than 2,300 volunteers from these later generations, with an average age of 53. Along with MRI scans, the team also had objective evidence of volunteers’ recent exercise habits, thanks to them wearing an activity tracker for up to a week at the time of their examination.

Spartano observed, as the study suggests, that people who are doing even just a little bit of activity, have larger brains than those doing very little. But having a large brain isn’t necessarily a good thing. This study is showing that people who are more active have less brain shrinkage than those who don’t. The link between more exercise and less brain shrinkage was seen in people who got less than 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise a week. That is considered the recommended amount by public health organizations for getting the most benefits from exercise. What Spartano didn’t find was a correlation between the intensity of the exercise and the size of the brain. Meaning, it didn’t matter how intensely the participants worked out, just that they were getting some exercise.

This study doesn’t speak to things like dementia, but it does give us new information on why staying active is beneficial. Especially as we get older.