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Exercise, Physical Activity, and Brain Fitness

No matter what you believe about computer-based cognitive training and what it can do for you (see previous post), it’s pretty clear that computer training isn’t the only answer to the question of how to keep your brain fit as you get older. Exercise and physical activity are pretty clearly related to cognitive function in people over 50. There are even some prospective studies that show that increasing physical activity can improve your mental abilities.

A recent update to a systematic review in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews once again confirms this (Angevaren, M., et al., Physical activity and enhanced fitness to improve cognitive function in older people. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 1, 2008). Animal studies have shown that exercise has multiple physical effects on basic biological processes that can improve memory and cognition. Improved aerobic fitness (being able to do things like walking, running, or swimming) increases blood flow to the brain as well as the body’s ability to get oxygen from the blood. Exercise also activates substances called growth factors in the body. These factors causes cells to grow, and may increase the number of blood vessels in the brain. Human research shows that similar mechanisms may be at work in older adults.

Several meta-analyses (special studies that look at the results of multiple studies all at once) have shown a relation of physical activity of mental abilities including memory. Although many of these studies are correlational (this means that they show us which factor causes the improvement), there are also some prospective studies of exercise in older adults. These have shown that people who improve their physical fitness also improve their mental fitness. Brain fitness is more than computer-based training.

Cognitive Aging

I think that many of us who work in the field of aging and mental abilities sometimes may forget to explain some key terms and phrases to patients. One of the most general and frequently used is the phrase “cognitive aging.” What does it mean/

Cognitive Aging refers to how our mental capacities change over time. It may seem as though all of our abilities go downhill after age 30 or 40, but research shows that isn’t completely true. The truth is that some abilities decline over time, some stay about the same, and some actually improve as we get older. For example, psychomotor speed is an ability in which most people perform more poorly over time. The precise definition of psychomotor speed varies from study to study, but it’s often assessed by tests that ask you to do some kind of task that requires that you think and to something with your hands as quickly as you can. One task is called a pegboard. A piece of metal attached to a block of wood has rows of holes in it, a little like the kind of pegboard you might put up in your workshop to hold tools. The person being evaluated is asked to put small metal pegs in the board as quickly as he or she can. This is the sort of thing that younger persons in general do much better than older persons do.

Another ability that may decline over time is called working memory. This ability is usually assessed by asking someone to keep a couple of things in their minds and then do something with them. The person being evaluated might be given a series of numbers and then asked to repeat them backwards – he or she has to remember the numbers and then somehow mentally read them backwards. Being asked to do mental arithmetic problems also taps working memory. Here, the person being assessed might have to remember some elements of the problem that are given, might have to access some existing knowledge (like how many quarts are in a gallon), and then do a calculation.

What abilities may actually get better over time? Things that don’t require speed or working memory, but may benefit from life experience. The most common example is vocabulary. Many older adults score better than their younger counterparts on tests of how many words they know. Older adults probably have had more opportunities to learn words, and once a word is in long-term memory, older adults can recall it pretty well. Some people have also suggested that because of the benefits of experience, older adults are better able to discern patterns in events around them. Finally, some research has shown that older adults are better than younger persons at certain kinds of problem solving, especially when it involves social skills or awareness of social issues.

Brain Fitness

Health Literacy

a light bulb

As we get older, being able to find, understand, and use health information is increasingly important. With ongoing changes in the healthcare system worldwide, people have to be ale to make healthcare decisions for themselves. One of the major reasons for the lack of activity on this blog over the …

Strength Training and the Brain

Gray haired woman lifting weight

Lots of evidence points to the usefulness of aerobic exercise for maintaining and improving mental functioning (see a previous blog post here and an extensive review article here). It is not as clear, though, whether strength training has an effect. An article in JAMA Internal Medicine shows that even a …


Old book pen magnifier

Maria Konnikova posts an interesting article in this past Sunday’s New York Times on the effects of undivided attention and mindfulness. In her post, she links concentration to Sherlock Holmes (perhaps because that’s a link to her forthcoming book), but she provides a nice if brief review of some of …

Cognitive Lifestyle and Neuroprotection

man thinking

A study from earlier this year sheds light on how being mentally active may confer protection for cognitive decline. Michael Valenzuela is a researcher whose work focuses on understanding the links between mental activity over someone’s entire life and their later function. In previous studies, he and his colleagues have …

Physical Activity and How Long You Live

Man riding a bicycle in a race

Lots of research has shown that, at least over short periods of time, people who are physically active are more alert, remember things better, and are in better health. But does that mean that they live longer?  A recent review article looked at this question. The authors found 13 papers …

RSS "Worry and GAD Blog"

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