The researchers found that older adults performed better on critical thinking and memory tests after just six months of aerobic exercise.
Study lead author Dr. Marc J. Poulin is a professor in the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary
“As we all find out eventually, we lose a bit mentally and physically as we age. But even if you start an exercise program later in life, the benefit to your brain may be immense,” said Dr. Poulin.
“Sure, aerobic exercise gets blood moving through your body. As our study found, it may also get blood moving to your brain, particularly in areas responsible for verbal fluency and executive functions. Our finding may be important, especially for older adults at risk for Alzheimer’s and other dementias and brain disease.”
The study was focused on more than 200 adults with an average age of 66 and no history of heart or memory problems. Prior to the study, the participants worked out moderately less than four days a week or intensely no more than two days per week.
Memory and thinking skills were assessed at the beginning of the trial, and the individuals were given an ultrasound to measure blood flow in the brain.
The study participants enrolled in an aerobic exercise program that was held three days a week. Over time, they progressively increased their workout from 20 minutes to at least 40 minutes a day. The individuals were also asked to work out on their own once per week.
The researchers found that after six months of consistent exercise, the participants improved by 5.7 percent on tests of executive function.
In addition, their ability to retrieve information quickly, or verbal fluency, increased by 2.4 percent. “This change in verbal fluency is what you’d expect to see in someone five years younger,” explained Professor Poulin.
Average peak blood flow to the brain also improved, increasing from an average of 51.3 centimeters per second to an average of 52.7 centimeters per second.
According to Professor Poulin, the increase in blood flow with exercise was associated with a number of modest but significant improvements in aspects of thinking that usually decline as we age.
“Our study showed that six months’ worth of vigorous exercise may pump blood to regions of the brain that specifically improve your verbal skills as well as memory and mental sharpness,” said Professor Poulin. “At a time when these results would be expected to be decreasing due to normal aging, to have these types of increases is exciting.”
The study is published in the journal Neurology.