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.