Exercise boosts blood flow to two key regions of the brain associated with memory. Experts at UT Southwestern discovered this critically important process while mapping changes that occurred in the brains of older adults after one year of aerobic exercise.
Remarkably, the study showed the exercise-induced blood flow improved cognition among older adults with memory issues. These findings have major implications for future Alzheimer’s disease research.
A growing collection of studies has established a link between exercise and higher cognitive functioning, including research that suggests exercise can improve memory.
The experts set out to understand what happens during exercise that could produce these brain health benefits.
The team documented changes in long-term memory and cerebral blood flow in 30 participants who were at least 60 years of age and had memory problems. Half of the study participants engaged in 12 months of aerobic exercise training, while the other half were only trained in stretching.
After one year, the memory scores of the exercise group improved by 47 percent compared with minimal change in the control group.
At the beginning and end of the study, brains scans were performed on individuals in the exercise group while they were at rest.
The brain imaging revealed increased blood flow into the anterior cingulate cortex and the hippocampus, which play important roles in memory function.
Dr. Binu Thomas is a senior research scientist in Neuroimaging at UT Southwestern.
“Perhaps we can one day develop a drug or procedure that safely targets blood flow into these brain regions,” said Dr. Thomas. “But we’re just getting started with exploring the right combination of strategies to help prevent or delay symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. There’s much more to understand about the brain and aging.”
In a previous study on adults without memory issues, Dr. Thomas showed that aging athletes have better blood flow into the cortex than older adults who are sedentary.
The new research is significant because it maps the long-term cognitive improvement in adults at a high risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, and that number is expected to triple by 2050.
“We’ve shown that even when your memory starts to fade, you can still do something about it by adding aerobic exercise to your lifestyle,” said Dr. Thomas.
“Cerebral blood flow is a part of the puzzle, and we need to continue piecing it together. But we’ve seen enough data to know that starting a fitness program can have lifelong benefits for our brains as well as our hearts.”
The study is published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.