Exercise and the Aging Brain

Letting yourself slip into a sedentary lifestyle is going to put a dent in your life span, future health and wallet; why dramatically increase your chances of being sick, miserable, beset by huge medical bills (and dead before your time) if there are simple things you can do now to improve your outlook? Common sense on the way in which exercise improves long-term health prospects is continually reinforced by the output of the scientific community. Here are a couple more recent papers on the subject, with a focus on exercise and brain function.

Physical Activity and the Risk of Dementia in Oldest Old:

OBJECTIVE: This study evaluated the protective role of physical activity (PA) against cognitive impairment (CI) in the oldest old (age >/= 85).

METHOD: Prospective data on 66 optimally healthy, oldest old adults (mean age 88.5) were analyzed using survival analysis.

RESULTS: In all, 12 men and 11 women reported exercising > 4 hours per week, and 38 participants developed CI (mean onset age 93; mean follow-up 4.7 years). The effect of exercise was modified by gender. In more active women (> 4 hours/week), the risk of CI was reduced by 88% (95% confidence interval 0.03, 0.41) compared to those less active. Less active women had 2 times the incidence rate of CI compared to less active men and almost 5 times the rate compared to active women.

DISCUSSION: This study demonstrates the beneficial effects of exercise on healthy brain aging even in the oldest old and emphasizes the importance of increasing PA in older women.

Nothing is immune to abbreviation when you're trying to cram information into an abstract, as you might have noticed. But look at this - billions of dollars will change hands in the development and commercialization of therapies that change the degree or rate of specific outcomes by 30%, never mind a factor of 2 or 5. The value of looking after your own health in basic, easy ways is enormous. Yet people don't do it.

Role of aerobic fitness and aging on cerebral white matter integrity:

Neuroimaging research suggests that cerebral white matter (WM) integrity [is] decreased in older adults, especially in the prefrontal regions of the brain. Behavioral investigations of cognitive functioning suggest that some aspects of cognition may be better preserved in older adults who possess higher levels of aerobic fitness. There are only a few studies, however, investigating potential mechanisms for the improvements in aerobic fitness. Our study suggests that greater aerobic fitness may be related to greater WM integrity in select brain regions.

In past times, one might shrug and suggest that a decade here or there makes little difference, given that the final destination is same, and that getting the most out of the time allotted is a good primary focus. That sort of economic calculation is obsolete, however, made so by the prospects for healthy life extension within our lifetimes. The rapid advance of biotechnology opens up the possibility that a sudden expansion of healthy life expectancy - due to our increasing ability to repair the biochemical damage of aging, and thus rejuvenate the old - will happen over the course of a few decades, and that those decades could soon arrive. Ten years here or ten years there in your present life expectancy suddenly looks like a very big deal - the difference between death or healthy life for centuries, floated on ever more capable longevity medicine.

So take care of the health basics. They could make a long, long difference to your eventual span of healthy years.

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