Maintaining a sharp mind and a clear memory is one of the top concerns for aging adults in the United States today. What can adults do to keep their wits about them into old age and to decrease the risk of diseases like Alzheimer’s? Research from the University of Texas at Dallas Center for BrainHealth has found that aerobic exercise increases the flow of blood to key areas of the brain and supports memory and cognition as people age.

The researchers evaluated two groups of sedentary adults aged 57 to 75. One group was put on a “waitlist” for an exercise program. The other group participated in a 12-week exercise program that consisted of one-hour sessions on a treadmill or stationary bike three times per week. The participants were assessed at three intervals—at the beginning of the program, half-way through, and after the 12-week period—for cognitive ability, cardiovascular fitness, and resting cerebral blood flow. Measuring cerebral blood flow provided a non-invasive way for the researchers to easily identify changes in the brain.

The aerobic exercise training resulted in increased blood flow to certain regions of the brain: the anterior cingulate and the hippocampus. More blood to the anterior cingulate is indicative of both higher neuronal activity and improved metabolic rate; previous studies have also linked the anterior cingulate to better cognition in later life. More blood in the hippocampus suggests stronger memory.

The results also suggest that measuring blood flow in the brain may provide an alternative method for assessing brain health. The researchers observed changes in blood flow to the hippocampus, which indicated improved cognition, before actual gains in cognition had become apparent.

“Physical exercise may be one of the most beneficial and cost-effective therapies widely available to everyone to elevate memory performance. These findings should motivate adults of all ages to start exercising aerobically,” stated Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD, founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth, as well as lead author of the paper.

This research is published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

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