Moderate endurance exercise increases brain size and improves memory.

The Introductionbrain-hippocampus

We’ve known for years that endurance training helps prevent and manage all types of chronic disease including heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and certain cancers. This recent research also suggests it may help in the prevention of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease by increasing brain size and improving memory. It’s just another reason to get active and stay active into older age.

The Research

120 older adults aged 55-80 years who were not regular exercisers were randomly broken into two groups. One group did an aerobic walking program walking round a track three days a week, 40 minutes a session for a whole year; the other group did no walking but some stretching and light weights. Every person’s aerobic capacity, brain size, spatial memory, and blood was tested before, at six months and at the end of the 12-month program.

The Results

The hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for long-term memory and spatial navigation, increased in size by 2% as measured using MRI but actually decreased in size in the control group. The blood tests showed that a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) increased in the walking group. BDNF helps maintain or grow new nerves. Interestingly, this increase in BDNF and brain size helped spatial memory improve in the walking group.

The So What?

This research highlights that it’s never too late to start aerobic exercise. In fact, given it’s affect on brain size and memory, endurance exercise appears to help improve memory and thus act as a preventive activity in holding off dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Yet another reason to ‘just do it’!

 Erickson, K. and others (2011). Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. January 31

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