We all know that aging is associated with physical and cognitive decline. Cognitive decline may increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other related dementias. Research conducted by the Alzheimer’s Society in 2019 found there were over 850,000 people with dementia in the UK (1 in every 14 of the population over 65 years) and if the current trend continues, the number of people with dementia is forecast to be 1,000,000 by 2025. Even adults over the age of 70 with no medical diagnosis of dementia or behavioral indications, experience a decline in brain mass– losing 0,7% of grey matter and 1% of white matter a year. This decline is associated with a variety of cognitive atrophies, such as memory loss. However, aging is a natural process of life, and the World Health Organisation invites us to age with health.
The brain controls body functions, and that’s why its decline and atrophy affect our whole body. Fortunately, we can develop strategies to age well and healthily, one of the easiest being physical activity. Vast amounts of research have shown that exercise is a key component in limiting the effects of aging, with moderate intensity activities having an important role in neuroprotection, slowing the loss of brain matter, and improving its function.
Physical exercise produces visible changes in our body, such as fat loss, muscle gain, improved flexibility, and very importantly, exercise has a profound effect on our brain structure, an influence that can protect and preserve our brain health and function, with higher levels of exercise being associated with better cognitive abilities in older age. As exercise enhances learning and improves information retention, activities such as aerobic exercises are being used as low-cost and side-effect free treatments to improve neurocognitive functions. A study published in The Journal of Gerontology found that healthy adults (60–70 years old) assigned to an aerobic exercise regimen for 6 months showed an increase in grey and white matter in areas of the brain where there is often reported age-related deterioration (prefrontal and temporal cortices), compared to a control group that did not participate in aerobic exercises.
Another area in the brain that shrinks is the hippocampus (about 1–2% loss in volume each year), which leads to memory loss, impaired cognitive development, and a higher risk of dementia. Higher rates of physical activity are associated with the preservation of both left and right hippocampal volume in older adults between the ages of 57 and 81. A study published in 2011 demonstrated that a 1 year aerobic exercise intervention, such as walking, running or cycling, was enough to increase hippocampal volume by 2%. Furthermore, it was able to offset the deterioration related to aging.
Other neuroprotective activities include acquiring new skills as they involve cognitively demanding situations that enhance memory functions in older adults, such as learning a new language or anew hobby. Bilingualism can affect cognitive control, supporting flexible and goal oriented thought, and contributing toward cognitive reserve, the brain’s ability to improvise and find new ways to get something done, and may even postpone onset symptoms of dementia. Engaging in novel activities causes a significant increase in episodic memory, a category of long-term memory that involves autobiographical events. A study published in 2013 compared episodic memory in adults that participated in different activities- learning new skills or socialising-, found that those who learnt new skills experienced the greatest beneficial effects on cognition.
We must stop relating aging exclusively to inactivity and illness. Physical activity can help prevent and manage over 20 chronic health conditions, and can help reduce the cost of adult care in the UK (which is expected to reach £20 billion by 2024). The National Health Service (NHS) recommends that adults do a minimum of 150 minutes a week of exercise, such as low-impact activities, aerobic exercises, and strength training. At FitQuid we aim to create a digital solution for our community by developing a culture that prioritises health and well-being, as plenty of research has shown that exercise is extremely beneficial for us. By being active we can keep our brains and our bodies fit, and it is never too late to start your journey towards a healthier lifestyle.