Yes, ten years. That’s the difference in brain aging in people who do light or no exercise and people who do moderate to intense exercise. Science Daily reports on a study, conducted by researchers from the University of Miami, Florida, that asked 876 people how long and how often they exercised during the two weeks prior to that date. An average of seven years later, each person was given tests of memory and thinking skills and a brain MRI, and five years after that they took the memory and thinking tests again. First, some numbers. About 90 percent of the participants reported light exercise (walking or yoga) or no exercise. The remaining 10 percent reported moderate to high intensity exercise (running, aerobics, or calisthenics). When the researchers looked at people who had no signs of memory and thinking problems at the start of the study, they found that those reporting low activity levels showed a greater decline over five years compared to those with high activity levels on tests of how fast they could perform simple tasks and how many words they could remember from a list. Yes, the difference was equal to 10 years of aging.
Exercise may make you a better learner. That’s the suggestion of research conducted and the University of Pisa and reported in the New York Times. The paper reports that researchers asked 20 adults to watch a movie with one eye patched while relaxing in a chair, and later to watch a movie while exercising in 10-minute intervals on a stationary bike. Why the eye patch? Because, the Times reports, when one eye is patched, the visual cortex compensates for the limited input by increasing its activity level. When the researchers tested the imbalance in strength between the participants’ eyes after the movie, they found that the differences were greater after exercise, suggesting that exercise enabled the brain to adapt more quickly.
And now the bad news: when researchers at the University of California in San Francisco tested the mental acuity of 3,274 people whose TV watching habits had been logged for 25 years, they found a direct correlation between more TV and poor thinking. The New York Times reports that “the highest level of TV watching — more than three hours a day most days — was associated with poor performance on all three brain tests. Compared with those who watched TV the least, those who watched the most had between one-and-a-half and two times the odds of poor performance on the tests, even after adjusting for age, sex, race, educational level, body mass index, smoking, alcohol use, hypertension and diabetes. Those with the lowest levels of physical activity and the highest levels of TV watching were the most likely to have poor test results.”
In healthy women at least, there appears to be a link between leg strength and brain activity. A news release from King’s College in London reports that researchers at the school have found that leg strength was a better predictor of brain health than any other lifestyle factor looked at in a recent study, which involved 324 healthy female twins, aged 43 to 73. The researchers measured thinking, learning and memory at both the beginning and end of the study. Generally, the twin who had more leg power at the start of the study sustained their cognition better and had fewer brain changes associated with aging measured after ten years.
It’s not exactly news, but three more research projects recently demonstrated the brain-related benefits of exercise. HealthDay reports that in one project, 65 people between the ages 55 to 89 were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The first group did stretching exercises while the second group did at least 45 minutes of high-intensity aerobics four times a week. Six months in, MRI brain scans of the aerobics group showed that blood flow had significantly increased to the memory and processing centers of participants’ brains, and those in the group had improved ability to plan, organize and pay attention. Wait, there’s more: cerebrospinal fluid samples drawn from the same group showed a significant reduction in tau protein tangles that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease. In another research project, 200 people between ages 50 and 90 with Alzheimer’s were randomly assigned to either an aerobic exercise program or a control group that did no extra exercise. The researchers found that those who exercised suffered from fewer mood problems such as anxiety, irritability and depression, and had significant improvements in mental speed and attention. Finally, HealthDay reports, a third project involved 71 people between ages 56 and 96 who had suffered ministrokes, diminishing their ability to think and remember. Half were assigned to regular aerobics classes. The researchers found that participants who took aerobics significantly improved their memory and selective attention, compared with those not asked to exercise regularly.
No. Garlic won’t make you smarter, but according to researchers at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, it might protect your brain against aging and disease. A U of Missouri news release reports that researchers at the school focused on a carbohydrate derivative of garlic known as FruArg and the role this nutrient plays in protective responses, paying particular attention the nutrient’s ability to inhibit ― and even possibly reverse ― brain cell damage caused by environmental stress. What did they find? The envelope please…..When FruArg was applied to model microglial cells, the cells adapted to the stress by reducing the amount of nitric oxide they produced. That’s important because excessive production of nitric oxide leads to brain cell damage and promotes neurodegenerative diseases such as cerebral ischemia, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Wait, there’s more: FruArg promoted the production of antioxidants, which offered protective and healing benefits to other brain cells.
Drinking wine may be good for your heart, but for brain health, you may need another beverage: milk. Researchers at the University of Kansas Medical Center who asked 60 people about their milk consumption and took scans of their brains are convinced that people who drink a lot of milk have higher levels of glutathione in their brains. Why do we care? Because glutathione could help stave off oxidative stress and the resulting damage caused by reactive chemical compounds produced during the normal metabolic process in the brain. And why do we care about that? Because oxidative stress is associated with a several unpleasant diseases and conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Got milk?
OK, it’s not surprising, but it’s nice to know that it’s backed up by science: exercise increases the flow of oxygen to the brain. HealthDay reports that researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand used imaging techniques to gauge the flow of blood in the brains of women doing different types and levels of exercise. What did they find? The envelope please….When compared with their less-active peers, women who exercised most days of the week had more oxygen circulating in the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that helps us make decisions and retain memories. Like remembering to exercise.
Can just thinking about building muscle actually build muscle? Researchers at Ohio University’s Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute think so. HealthDay reports that scientists at the institute put 29 people in casts that completely immobilized their hand and wrist for four weeks. Fourteen of those people were told to routinely perform an imagery exercise, imagining that they were intensely contracting their wrist for five seconds with five seconds of rest. Wait, there’s more: As they performed this imagery exercise, they were guided by the following instructions: “Begin imagining that you are pushing in as hard as you can with your left wrist, push, push, push . . . and stop. (Five-second rest.) Start imagining that you are pushing in again as hard as you can, keep pushing, keep pushing . . . and stop. (Five-second rest.)” The instructions were played four times and followed by a one-minute break, and participants completed 13 rounds per session and sessions each week. Yes, the other half of the cast group did not perform any imagery exercise. Ready, the envelope please….After four weeks, all of the participants who wore a cast lost strength in their immobilized hand and wrist, but those who had performed mental imaging lost 50 percent less strength than the group that didn’t do mental exercises.
It’s possible that our mothers were right about fish being brain food. If only we had eaten more, we might have known that. Or not. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh are convinced that people who eat a lot fish, baked or broiled but not fried, have larger brain volumes in regions associated with memory and cognition. The researchers, who analyzed the dietary habits and brain scans of 260 people over 65 over a ten year period, found that those who ate baked or broiled fish at least once a week had greater gray matter brain volumes in areas of the brain responsible for memory (4.3 percent) and cognition (14 percent) and were more likely to have a college education than those who didn’t eat fish regularly. And now the strange part: the researchers could not find a relationship between omega-3 levels and the brain changes, as they had expected to. What then, is boosting the brain power? Tough one. The researchers attribute that to “lifestyle factors.”
Focus now. This may be hard to remember, especially if you are over 25 and there are random distractions in the room. Yes, it’s bad news: researchers at Rice University are convinced that “older people,” by which they mean people over 25, are nearly twice as likely as younger people, yes, younger than 25, to have their memory impaired by distractions such as irrelevant speech or written words. Where was I? Oh, yeah, a Rice University news release reports that researchers tested the memory and cognitive function of 102 people between the ages of 18 and 32 (average age of 21) and 60 people between the ages of 64 and 82 (average age of 71). When the participants were tested on remembering lists of words, the younguns remembered words on the list with an average accuracy of 81 percent while the “older people” came in at only 67 percent. Wait, it gets worse. When irrelevant words (that were supposed to be ignored) were introduced, the young test group’s accuracy dropped to 74 percent, but the accuracy of the old test group’s performance dropped to 46 percent. Got that?