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Exercise shown to reverse brain
deterioration brought on by aging
photo to enlarge
by L. Brian Stauffer
Art Kramer, top, and Ed McAuley and colleagues
at Illinois have found that moderate exercise
increases brain volume in older adults.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill —
The wait for an anti-aging treatment is over, according to cognitive
neuroscientists and kinesiologists at the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign. While not as effortless as popping a pill, the treatment
– in the form of moderate exercise – may be a simple and
effective way to reverse age-related brain deterioration.
In a study published in the November issue of the Journal of Gerontology:
Medical Sciences, psychology and neuroscience professor Arthur F. Kramer
and his collaborators show that moderate exercise increases brain volume
in older adults.
“Ten years ago you would never have expected to see this in older
adults,” said Kramer, who is also a researcher at the Beckman
Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at Illinois.
Until recently it was believed that age-related cognitive and brain
changes were negative and inevitable. This view has changed with demonstrations
in non-human animals that older brains can show positive changes in
response to exercise, diet, social and environmental stimulation, Kramer
Sedentary volunteers 60 through 79 years old participated in a six-month
exercise program that met three times each week. Half of the volunteers
did aerobic exercises such as walking. The other half did non-aerobic
stretching and toning exercises.
Co-author Edward McAuley, a professor of kinesiology at Illinois, and his collaborators monitored the fitness of all participants
and increased the intensity of the aerobic and non-aerobic workouts
as the study progressed.
The researchers compared high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging
brain scans before and at the end of the exercise program.
By the end of the six-month program, the participants in the aerobic
exercise group showed increases in brain volume compared with participants
who did toning and stretching exercises. The prefrontal and temporal
cortices – areas that show considerable age-related deterioration
– incurred the greatest gains from aerobic exercise.
The findings that exercise intervention increases brain volume agree
with the researchers’ 2003 cross-sectional study, also published
in the Journal of Gerontology, showing a correlation between physical
fitness and brain tissue loss in older adults.
The findings have public policy implications. “Moderate levels
of exercise – in particular, walking – are relatively easy
to do and may result in increased cognitive flexibility and the ability
to lead independent lives for longer periods of time,” Kramer
said. In this case, people who had been couch potatoes started with
15 minutes of exercise, built it up to 45 minutes and showed improvements
in brain volume and physical fitness.
“You don’t have to be a marathon runner – most people
walk,” Kramer said. Swimming, biking and walking are all ways
that people can get these anti-aging brain benefits, Kramer said.
Funding for the study was provided by the National Institute on Aging
and the Institute for the Study of Aging. With Kramer and McAuley, the
other co-authors are postdoctoral researchers Stanley J. Colcombe (now
at the University of Wales, Bangor), Kirk I. Erickson, Paige E. Scalf,
Steriani Elavsky and David X. Marquez; and graduate students Jenny S.
Kim, Ruchika Wadhwa and Liang Hu.