Diseases that affect the brain are a major risk for all of us as we grow older. Over time, our brains age naturally just like other parts of our bodies, even if we’re lucky enough not to experience any symptoms of disease. Yet this aging process involves a deterioration in the structure and functioning of the brain, which increases the risk of things like dementia.
It’s no surprise therefore that as life expectancy has increased, we are seeing more and more cases of mental decline in the population. And unfortunately, once a person’s brain begins to experience cognitive decline, medical professionals aren’t currently able to offer much in the way of effective treatment. That means that it’s essentially down to all of us as individuals to do what we can to stop our brains from aging.
A decade ago, the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association (AHA/ASA) published ‘Life’s Simple 7’ – their professional advice on how to reduce the risk of both heart and brain diseases. It includes things that will be familiar to many of us: watching your cholesterol, sugar levels and blood pressure; not smoking, sticking to a healthy diet, and of course – exercise. But now some new research suggests that it’s the last one which may be the most important.
In a recent paper published in the journal Aging, specialists from the University of Alabama at Birmingham dubbed physical exercise the ‘first among equals of Life’s Simple 7’. They note that physical exertion causes the body’s circulatory and respiratory systems to supply oxygen to the muscles. It’s believed this helps the brain to function better, increasing its volume and helping to reduce inflammation.
Synthesizing a large amount of research, the authors also point out that, among other things, exercise stimulates the creation of neurons in the brain, and helps fight reductions in the flow of blood to it that are caused by the aging process. It’s also a great way to fight high blood pressure and reduced blood vessel density, which are known to be additional sources of mental decline in old age. Improving the flow of blood to the brain through exercise can also reduce the risk of harmful proteins building up in the body – something that has been linked to Alzheimer’s.
The paper also points out that exercise can have positive knock-on effects on some of the other healthy behaviors mentioned in the AHA/ASA’s ‘Life’s Simple 7’, in terms of helping to overcome the damage done by smoking, depression, excess weight, poor diet and excess cholesterol.
While more research needs to be done in this area, expert medical opinion appears to be ever more certain that regular exercise is one of the best ways to stay young – not just physically, but also mentally.