Brain scans showed that participants with the highest levels of physical activity had higher total gray matter in their brains than those with the lowest levels of physical activity. Photo by MabelAmber/Pixabay
Exercise may help protect your brain as you age, and a new study suggests this may happen.
Previous studies have shown that physical activity helps protect brain cells. This paper suggests it may do so by lowering levels of insulin and body fat.
“These results may help us understand how physical activity affects brain health, which may guide us in developing strategies to prevent or delay age-related declines in memory and thinking ability,” said study co-author Géraldine Poisnel of the Inserm Research Center in Caen, France.
The study included 134 people, with an average age of 69, who had no memory problems. They completed questionnaires about their physical activity in the past year.
Researchers also collected information on the participants’ body mass index (BMI — an estimate of body fat based on weight and height), insulin levels, cholesterol, blood pressure and other health factors.
Brain scans showed that participants with the highest levels of physical activity had a higher total amount of gray matter in their brains (about 550,000 cubic millimeters on average) than those with the lowest levels of physical activity (about 540,000 cubic millimeters).
When the researchers focused only on areas of the brain that would be affected by Alzheimer’s disease, they found similar results.
Those participants who were the most active also had higher average glucose metabolism rates in the brain than those who were the least active. According to the study, reduced glucose metabolism in the brain can be seen in people with dementia.
The results were recently published online in the journal Neurology.
Higher levels of physical activity were not associated with the amount of amyloid plaques in people’s brains. Amyloid plaques are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.
“Older adults who were physically active gained cardiovascular benefits, which may lead to more structural integrity of the brain,” Poisnel said in a journal news release.
The study does not prove that exercise protects brain volume; it simply shows an association, the authors said, noting that further research is needed.
Nonetheless, “maintaining a lower body mass index through physical activity may help prevent the disruption of insulin metabolism that often occurs in aging, thereby promoting brain health,” Poisnel said.
For more information on keeping the brain healthy as we age, visit the National Institute on Aging.