Exercise Helps the Brain – Who Knew?
I was amused recently, to read the front-page headline in a neurology newsletter I receive, that stated “Any level of physical activity tied to better late life memory.”
First, my amusement stemmed from the fact that we have known this information for at least the past 15 years. Why does it take so long for this type of information to make its way to neurologists, and then secondarily to the general population? And please understand, I asked this question in the context of the fact that there is no meaningful treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia.
Don’t get me wrong. If there were a meaningful treatment for Alzheimer’s, or some pharmaceutical intervention that could help with late life memory loss, I would absolutely be all over it. But none exists.
Our mission is to keep our brains as healthy as we can and we’ve known for so many years that a key lifestyle intervention that has direct influence on brain health and resistance to functional decline is physical exercise. Over a decade ago my writings quoted researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, who showed dramatic evidence of increased growth of cells. In the brain’s memory center, the hippocampus in individuals who participated in a regular exercise program over a one–year period of time, in comparison to those who simply did stretching. Importantly, this study also measured memory function, and demonstrated actual improvement in memory in the exercisers, while those who simply stretched had a decline in memory over the one–year period.
Why is exercise so helpful for the brain? There are many explanations, all of which make a lot of sense. First, muscles are actually an endocrine organ. When they are tasked, like when we exercise, they secrete higher levels of various chemicals that act in other parts of the body. As such, muscles are acting like other endocrine glands, including the thyroid and pancreas. The chemicals that muscles secrete influence the brain as well.
Muscles, when they are active, happen to create something called brain derived neurotrophic factor, also known as BDNF. BDNF is something I’ve been writing about for many years because it’s a central player in brain health. It nurtures brain cells (neurons) and keeps them healthy. It also increases the growth of new neurons, a process we call neurogenesis. Further, it actually increases the ability of neurons to communicate by strengthening what is called the synapse. This is the connection between one brain cell and the next. Lots of research has demonstrated that one of the primary functional issues that explains the cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s disease, for example, is the pervasive loss of synapses playing out as a reduction in communication within the brain.
So, I guess it’s reasonable for me to be pleased that these publications are now making their way to the sunshine, meaning more people will see them. To be sure, it’s a bit frustrating that it’s taken so long, but better late than never.