Aging drives an array of physiological, functional, and mental changes in the human body. It is the primary risk factor for many chronic diseases in humans, including cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and cardiovascular disease. Findings from a 2020 study suggest that exercise reverses some of the harmful effects of aging on the brain.
Scientists have identified strong links between regular physical exercise and brain health. Some of the mechanisms that drive the beneficial effects of exercise on the brain include increases in brain volume and connectivity, improved blood flow, enhanced synaptic plasticity, and increased neurogenesis – the formation of new neurons.
The intervention study involved 206 healthy, cognitively intact middle-aged and older adults (average age, 66 years) with low physical activity levels. The participants engaged in a supervised aerobic exercise program three days per week, gradually increasing from 20 to 40 minutes over a period of six months. They also completed an unsupervised exercise session one day per week during the six-month period. The authors of the study assessed the participants' cognitive performance, cerebrovascular function, and overall fitness on three separate occasions over a period of 12 months.
After completing the six months of exercise, the authors of the study noted that the study participants improved by nearly 6 percent on measures of working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. They improved by nearly 2.5 percent on tests of verbal fluency, comparable to abilities seen in person five years younger. Blood flow to the brain increased by nearly 3 percent, suggesting that cerebrovascular function is a critical aspect of maintaining or improving memory and verbal skills.