How Exercise Can Help Counter Cognitive Decline

Research and clinical studies from several disciplines of science have recently revealed that increased physical activity reduces aging effects that slow down our brains as well as our mobility. Why can physical fitness add up to ten years of active lifestyle and 36 percent brain efficiency to seniors quality of life?

Brain Elasticity Prevents or Delays Cognitive Decline

Our brains have lifelong “brain elasticity”, which means the ability to repair broken connections and create new ones. Everyone experiences aging effects, but there are simple ways to postpone and event prevent some effects of cognitive decline.

1. Cognitive decline is recognized by symptoms like failing memory and being easily distracted from activities like cooking, forgetting what you were doing after being interrupted, or losing your focus in the middle of a conversation.

2. Because the brain function is reliant on good nutrition and the presence of important elements in the brain, these symptoms can happen to anyone at any age.

3. The impact of cognitive decline becomes more noticeable with age as we slow down physically, perhaps eating less healthy, and our body functions slow down.

Cognitive impairment is not the same as cognitive decline. Impairment refers to actual brain damage due to drug use, disease, or head injury. Patients with cognitive impairment can also improve their brain’s broken connections and create new ones in many cases. People experiencing common causes of cognitive decline show improvement in brain function during studies by using rigorous exercise.

In the same way that exercise is seen to improve other age-related symptoms like stiffening joints, healthier eyes, improved appetite, heart-related illness, lung function, diabetes symptoms, and digestion; exercise is seen to improve brain function, memory, and focus. Even slow walking and low-level exercise stimulates more oxygen to the brain and better delivery of nutrients (and critical chemical components), for normal brain function.

Studies Prove Exercise, Nutrition and Socialization Keep Us Younger Longer

Multiple studies related to cognitive decline by the National Institute of Health, The Northern Manhattan Study, and the study journal, Medicine Science in Sports and Exercise, show very positive results for moderate to vigorous exercise offering up to 36% cognitive improvement and in most cases, delays serious cognitive decline for an added ten years.

  • Many people take supplements and vitamins for higher brain function. When aging requires taking daily medications, developing a good physical fitness regime promotes better cognitive ability without any danger of negative medication interactions or creating additional symptoms.
  • Exercise returns needed nutrients, oxygen, and certain brain elements like enzymes and repair components, fighting free radicals and toxins that impair brain function. Exercise improves the sleep cycle and helps improve emotional health which also keeps us actively interacting socially.
  • One third of our brains are made up of blood vessels. A key to staying young is to keep these blood vessels healthy, maintaining a healthy blood flow. It is never too late for sedentary adults to improve their brain’s blood flow through exercise. Even moderate exercising improves the size of the hippocampus, a part of the brain responsible for retrieving memories, storing new memories, and increasing the brain’s processing speed. 
  • Nutrition focused on brain healthy foods like green leafy vegetables, antioxidants, and Omega-3 fatty acids like fish, legumes, curcumin, nuts and grains are components for brain function relieving stress and increasing creative thinking. These nutrients are essential for eliminating free radicals, which are molecules and atoms that cause cellular damage.

Did you know that a reduction in your social life and increased isolation is a component of dementia?

  • The more social you are, the more active your brain and the more socially active you become, the longer you will maintain a healthy, high functioning brain.
  • Adding new experiences in a social environment creates new tests for your brain, requiring new connections to grow within your brain.
  • It is proven that regular social involvement while learning a new skill greatly improves normal brain functions like memory, reduction of stress, and keeping emotional stability.

Challenging your brain is even more responsive to higher functioning than your muscles are. The “use it or lose it” principle with muscle tone in exercise, is even more predictable in brain health and performance, for all age groups. Seniors do have control over improving their mental acuity and fitness through diet, exercise, and socialization.

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Kim Gladfelter

Kim Gladfelter, PT, MPT, OCS, FAAOMPT, is a physical therapist and owner of PhysioFit Physical Therapy & Wellness in Los Altos, CA. Kim's facility has a complete wellness center, offering classes in Pilates, Yoga, Gyrotonic® and TRX suspension training, as well as special clinical programs for women’s health. Kim works with people aged 30-65+ on a daily basis and is an expert Columnist who writes health articles for the Los Altos Town Crier newspaper, professional newsletters and blogs nationwide. She also reaches out to the local community, support groups, schools, libraries and sports centers to advise and educate on body awareness and exercise for back pain.
Kim Gladfelter

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