Engaging in regular physical activity benefits both your mental and physical health. It’s been known to boost overall mood, reduce stress, improve cardiovascular health, and strengthen bones and muscles. New research also points to the fact that brisk walking every day can slow the risk of cognitive decline. It promotes positive changes in white matter in older adults.
As the body ages, it starts to lose muscle mass and bone density. The brain loses about 5% of its volume every decade. The good news is that research indicates that physical activity can slow this decline of brain volume. For the average person, the ability to hold on to simple pieces of information like a street name declines during their thirties. New research suggests that the simple cardiovascular activity of walking may be able to turn back the clocks on your brain. Studies show that walking every day may help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. For example, walking for 30-60 minutes every day may:
- Improve memory, judgment, reasoning, and thinking skills
- Increase the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that involves memory formation
- Keep learning skills and thinking sharp
- Delay the onset of Alzheimer’s for people who are at a higher risk
Does Exercise Prevent Memory Loss?
Research suggests that physical activity slows cognitive decline, but it may not prevent dementia or Alzheimer’s. A new study, which was published on June 24, 2021, found that exercise promotes neural plasticity (positive changes in the brain). The researchers focused on white matter in the brain, which exists in the brain’s deeper tissues. It contains nerve fibers that are extensions of neurons. Both white matter and gray matter are necessary for optimal brain function.
To easily understand how white matter and gray matter work, think of them in electrical terms. Gray matter is like a light bulb, while white matter is the connective wiring that leads to the switch to turn on the light. The amount of white matter naturally declines with age, regardless of dementia or Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Can exercise slow this decline or even reverse it? It may not prevent it, but the research suggests positive changes in existing white matter.
Walking Boosts Memory
The latest study from June 2021 included 247 participants who were all over age 60. About 68% of the group was female and nearly all participants were inactive, but otherwise healthy. No participant had a history of neurological issues. At the beginning of the study, an MRI machine measured each person’s function of existing white matter. The participants were then placed into different groups. Each group met three times per week for a total of six months.
The first group walked for 40 minutes every time they met. The second group participated in supervised stretching and balance training, while the third group practiced choreographed dancing, learning new dances throughout the course of the study. At the end of the six-month study, brain imaging revealed an interesting result.
The group that walked for 40 minutes every time they met improved cardiovascular function. All groups seemed to reveal positive changes in white matter, but the walking group had more noticeable changes. In fact, certain parts of the brain appeared larger on the scans, and signs of brain damage (like tissue legions) were much smaller. These regions of the brain that appeared larger are often associated with dementia or memory decline. Researchers don’t know why the dancing group did not experience the same benefits as the walking group. Aerobic exercise may be the primary factor that benefits white matter. More trials are necessary to determine if any other factors reduce the risk factor of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
At the end of the day, exercise works to encourage healthier blood flow throughout the body, including the brain. Regular exercise may help to improve blood pressure, which may reduce the risk of cognitive decline. Statistically, high blood pressure tends to increase the risk of dementia. In addition to exercise, proper sleep habits and a healthy diet positively impact the brain. Exercise alone will not save the brain from cognitive decline, but sleep, diet, and exercise may be the trifecta that staves it off for a lot longer.