Exercise and the Brain - it just gets better


Following our report on Dr Michael Merzenich's work on brain plasticity - the process of the brain whereby it builds neural pathways as a response to learning - there is news from the University of Edinburgh that exercise helps to protect the brain against age-related changes.



Following our report on Dr Michael Merzenich's work on brain plasticity - the process of the brain whereby it builds neural pathways as a response to learning - there is news from the University of Edinburgh that exercise helps to protect the brain against age-related changes. People who exercised regularly were found to have less damage to the white matter of the brain - the connections between areas of the brain - and to have maintained a higher volume of grey matter, the part of the brain which Dr Alan Gow, head of the team which carried out the research, describes as "the thinking areas".

The research team tested over 700 people aged 70, and then re-tested them after a gap of 3 years. MRI scans of the volume of the brain showed that those who did more exercise had lost least grey matter and suffered least damage to the white brain matter.

Recently, it has been proposed that mentally stimulating activities, such as doing crosswords or playing Sudoku, helped maintain brain function into later age, but the scientists found no evidence that these activities contributed to the physical wellbeing of the brain.

Dr Gow goes on to say that his team are very excited by the results and are looking forward to the next stages of the research looking to discover what might underlie the effect.

The research was carried out by a team at Edinburgh University's Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Epidemiology, which is funded by the Lifelong Health and Wellbeing programme, and the research is part of a larger project that is supported by Age UK's Disconnected Mind Project and the Medical Research Council.

Traditionally, there has always been a split between those who like sport and those whose preferred activities are in more cerebral areas, particularly at an earlier age, say, at school. It's very gratifying to know that, as we age, our interest in and commitment to maintaining our physical condition also has benefits for the mental side of life.