There have been studies that have shown that exercise may slow the progression of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. However, a new study focused on senior citizens – average age 78 – and concluded an active lifestyle helps preserve gray matter in the brains of older adults and could reduce the burden of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
The study was done at University of California in Los Angeles. They examined how an active lifestyle can influence brain structure in 876 adults, with an average age 78 years. The patients' condition ranged from normal cognition to Alzheimer's dementia.
Researchers had 20 years of clinical data on this group, including body mass index and lifestyle habits.
The lifestyle factors examined included recreational sports, gardening and yard work, bicycling, dancing and riding an exercise cycle.
The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and a technique called voxel-based morphometry to model the relationships between energy output and gray matter volume.
"Voxel-based morphometry is an advanced method that allows a computer to analyze an MR image and build a mathematical model that helps us to understand the relationship between active lifestyle and gray matter volume," Dr. Raji said. "Gray matter volume is a key marker of brain health. Larger gray matter volume means a healthier brain. Shrinking volume is seen in Alzheimer's disease."
The researchers found a strong association between energy output and gray matter volumes in areas of the brain crucial for cognitive function.
Greater caloric expenditure was related to larger gray matter volumes in the frontal, temporal and parietal lobes. There was a strong association between high energy output and greater gray matter volume in patients with mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's Disease.
The areas of the brain that benefited from an active lifestyle are the ones that consume the most energy and are very sensitive to damage.
"What struck me most about the study results is that it is not one but a combination of lifestyle choices and activities that benefit the brain," he said.
Dr. Raji said the positive influence of an active lifestyle on the brain was likely due to improved vascular health.
Some variation of aerobic physical activity can improve cerebral blood flow and strengthen neuronal connections.
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