Exercise, Experience and the Aging Brain: New Tricks Keep an Old Dog Young

Brain imageWhat if I told you that a dog is never too old to learn new tricks? In fact, it may very well be the tricks that keep that dog young.  According to the article “Exercise, experience and the aging brain” by James D. Churchill et al., including both mental and physical activity in the daily routine can affect how our brains age.  From this study, researchers concluded that “cardiorespiratory fitness and general physical activity level [serve] as strong predictors of cognitive vitality in [older adults]” (Churchill et al., p. 942).

Based on studies, mental functions supported by the frontal lobe and hippocampus (communication, spatial awareness and direction centers) can be maintained or even enhanced in humans with higher levels of fitness.  The results of these studies suggest that growth through the production of new neurons in the hippocampus is the brain’s response to elevated stress (exercise).  Additionally, learning enhances the survival of these fresh, new neurons.

The frontal lobe and hippocampus are regions of the brain that experience significant decline as we age, especially if Alzheimer’s enters the scene.  If you’ve ever cared for an individual affected by this disease, you know that there is a prominent struggle with spatial awareness, navigation and other higher level mental processes that coincides with an increase in personality changes during the later stages.  The frontal lobe is our “control panel” for personality and our ability to communicate.  The hippocampus is in charge of executive control processes, such as the following: planning, scheduling, coordination, inhibition, working memory, and spatial learning (also known as executive control processes).

Churchill’s study suggested that the effect of fitness was “substantially larger for tasks and task components that included executive control processes…[and] also had larger positive effects on cognition when training sessions exceeded 30 min for older adults” (Churchill et at., p. 944).  It has been widely accepted in the past that we have a small window during which our brains can grow.  However, the literature indicates that most elements of the human brain have the capacity to change in response to demand over the course of an entire lifetime.  Serotonin (the happy hormone) also responds to exercise, and ultimately influences new neuron production in adults, even in areas of the brain that don’t commonly undergo this growth.

The key to brain health (I’ll spare you the nutrition lecture for now) is finding ways to continuously stimulate your body physically and exercise your brain daily to inspire new growth and development.  What that means for you is absolutely up to you.  But do something every day that challenges you, inspires you, and makes your heart beat just a little bit faster.

“Ends and beginnings—there are no such things.  There are only middles.”

—Robert Frost

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