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Exercise leads to bigger brain in seniors

RICE / U. PITTSBURGH / U. ILLINOIS (US) — A year of moderate exercise improved memory in older adults by boosting the size of the brain’s hippocampus.

“We think of the atrophy of the hippocampus in later life as almost inevitable,” says Kirk Erickson, professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and the paper’s lead author. “But we’ve shown that even moderate exercise for one year can increase the size of that structure. The brain at that stage remains modifiable.”

Researchers recruited more than 120 sedentary older people without dementia and randomly placed them in one of two groups—those who began an exercise regimen of walking around a track for 40 minutes a day, three days a week, or those limited to stretching and toning exercises.

Magnetic resonance images were collected before the intervention, after six months, and at the end of the one-year study. Their findings are reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“A moderate exercise regimen may not only improve physical health in elderly by reducing the risk of diabetes, obesity, and high cholesterol, it can also improve cognitive abilities, such as memory,” says Chandramallika Basak, assistant professor of psychology at Rice University and co-author of the study.

Brain images show that the aerobic exercise group demonstrated an increase in volume of the left and right hippocampus of 2.12 percent and 1.97 percent, respectively. The same regions of the brain in those who did stretching exercises decreased in volume by 1.40 and 1.43 percent, respectively.

Spatial memory tests were conducted for all participants at the three intervals. Those in the aerobic exercise group showed improved memory function, when measured against their performance at the start of the study. This improvement was associated with the increased size of the hippocampus.

The authors also examined several biomarkers associated with brain health, including brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a small molecule that is involved in learning and memory. They found that the increases in hippocampal size were associated with increased amounts of BDNF.

“The results of our study are particularly interesting in that they suggest that even modest amounts of exercise by sedentary older adults can lead to substantial improvements in memory and brain health,” said Art Kramer, director of the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois and the senior author.

“Such improvements have important implications for the health of our citizens and the expanding population of older adults worldwide.”

Researchers from Ohio State University also contributed to the study, which was funded by the National Institute on Aging.

More news from Rice University, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Illinois.

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