Professors Art Kramer, top, and Ed McAuley and colleagues at Illinois have found that moderate exercise increases brain volume in older adults.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
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 said.
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.