Fight Cognitive Decline in the Gym
We all know that aging bodies tend to wear out and slow down. Some of this is inevitable. The metabolism slows, bones become less dense, reaction times slow, muscles begin to atrophy, healing takes longer, and even the ability to think clearly, learn new things, and form new memories all begin to decline.
The image of the older person who spends their final days rocking on the front porch is ingrained in our society. But what if this image—this expectation—is all wrong? What if aging calls for renewed commitment to exercise and good diet? What if grandma is slowing down precisely because she’s sitting too much? Could her body be declining because she stopped asking anything of it? And what of her mind? Is cognitive impairment—perhaps leading to cognitive decline, or even eventual dementia—truly inevitable?
Some experts recommend keeping the mind sharp by doing activities such as crossword puzzles. But new research suggests that older folks might do better to hit the gym. Physical exercise remains crucial, no matter your age. In fact, aerobic fitness—the sort of exercise that builds a strong, resilient cardiovascular system—is just what the doctor ordered to keep your aging brain healthy, too. The link between these seemingly disparate organ systems—the head and the heart—has everything to do with the health of the body’s arteries.
The arteries carry freshly oxygenated blood to tissues such as skeletal muscle, heart muscle, and the brain. Arteries are highly specialized structures, featuring elastic, thin layers of tissues, encased in extremely thin layers of smooth muscle. The very elasticity of arteries is one of the key features that enables these vessels to work smoothly and efficiently to deliver oxygen and nutrients where they’re needed.
Changes to the lining of arteries—a specialized tissue called the endothelium—often occur long before atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease become apparent. The same changes, characterized by stiffening, loss of elasticity, and narrowing of the vessel, also occur in arteries within the brain. Like the heart, the brain’s demand for oxygen and glucose (for fuel) is massive, and relentless.
Accordingly, exercise that keeps the heart and blood vessels strong can also improve blood flow in the brain and stave off age-related cognitive impairment. A new study shows that older individuals who remain aerobically fit have more flexible blood vessels, and less cognitive impairment.
“We found that older adults whose aortas were in a better condition and who had greater aerobic fitness performed better on a cognitive test. We therefore think that the preservation of vessel elasticity may be one of the mechanisms that enables exercise to slow cognitive aging,” said Claudine Gauthier, first author of the study.
C.J. Gauthier, M. Lefort, S. Mekary, L. Desjardins-Crépeau, A. Skimminge, P. Iversen, C. Madjar, M. Desjardins, F. Lesage, E. Garde, F. Frouin, L. Bherer, R.D. Hoge. Hearts and minds: linking vascular rigidity and aerobic fitness with cognitive aging. Neurobiology of Aging, 2014; DOI: 10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2014.08.018