March 14–20, 2016 is Brain Awareness Week. This recognition event is a good time to take stock of whether we are following a brain-healthy lifestyle.
We’ve learned a lot about brain health during the past decade. We know more about things we can do to lower the risk of Alzheimer’s, stroke and other conditions that threaten cognitive well-being. Positive lifestyle choices include good nutrition, getting enough sleep, reducing stress, protecting ourselves from head injury, and taking part in mentally stimulating activities.
And on the very top of that list is to stay physically active. For years we’ve known about the important benefits of exercise for our hearts and lungs. And research continues to confirm that what benefits the heart and lungs also benefits the brain.
In November, a University of Illinois study added to our understanding of the complicated relationship between having a healthy heart and lungs and a healthy brain. The research team, headed by researcher Michelle Voss, compared the brain health and cardiorespiratory health of a group of young and older people.
They measured brain health by using brain imagery (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to measure the strength of connections between different parts of the brain. Cardiorespiratory fitness was determined by how efficiently a person’s body used oxygen during physical activity. They found, as expected, that the brain connections were stronger in younger people. They also showed that among older people, those who were physically fit also had stronger brain connections.
Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on your genes—when it comes to the amount of activity needed for cardiorespiratory fitness, it would seem that there isn’t a level playing field. The University of Illinois team report that some people can maintain better fitness than others, regardless of activity level. Said Voss, “The idea that fitness could be related to brain health regardless of one’s physical activity levels is intriguing because it suggests there could be clues in how the body adapts for some people more than others from regular activity.”
This doesn’t mean that some people can be complete slackers, though. Exercise has brain benefits for everyone. According to Voss, who is currently an assistant professor at the University of Iowa, “An encouraging pattern in the data from our study and others is that the benefits of fitness seem to occur within the low-to-moderate range of endurance, suggesting that the benefits of fitness for the brain may not depend on being extremely fit.”
Almost everyone can take part in an exercise program, no matter what their physical and cognitive condition. A good brain-protective exercise program includes aerobic, muscle-strengthening, flexibility and balance training activities.
Talk to your healthcare provider about an exercise program that’s right for you. Lace up your sneakers and build up your brain!
Source: IlluminAge AgeWise, with material from University of Illinois. Brain Awareness Week is sponsored by the Dana Foundation (www.dana.org/BAW).