May 13, 2003 

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Older Women and Exercise (video)
April 01, 2003

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Interviewees: Art Kramer and Stan Colcombe, University of Illinois.

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Produced by Sanjanthi Velu

Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc., with additional footage courtesy ABC News and the National Institute on Aging.

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We know that exercise can help us feel young and stay healthy. But neuroscientists say it can help us stay mentally young as well.

As this ScienCentral news video reports, scientific evidence shows that’s especially true for older women.

Exercise Fuels Your Brain

If you think it’s too late to start getting benefits from exercising, think again. Studies reveal that even if you start exercising late in life, your brain may gain.

Loss of brain cells is a natural part of the aging process. “Starting at around age 30, the human brain begins to lose tissue,” says Stan Colcombe, a neuroscience fellow at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “It loses at the rate of roughly five to ten percent per decade.” This loss of brain volume affects many brain functions, including judgment, understanding, and decision making.

But exercise has been found to increase not only blood flow but also the production of certain neurochemicals that improve brain function in older adults. In fact, as reported in the March issue of Psychological Science, seniors actually gain more from exercise than younger adults do.

“They have gone further down the hill,” explains Colcombe. “So they have much more of the hill they can climb back up. That’s why they show the greatest benefit.”

Colcombe and Arthur Kramer, a professor of psychology and member of the Beckham Institute, analyzed data from 18 different studies on exercise and brain function conducted over the past 35 years. They found that older adults gained more in mental performance from exercise than younger adults. Kramer says that exercise increases the production of a brain molecule called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which Kramer says “protects” brain cells. “It also increases the number of brain cells that are created,” he says, “that presumably participate in various aspects of cognition.”

So how much exercise is enough?

According to Colcombe, “You don’t have to exercise all that much to prove cognitive benefits from exercise.” He says that just 10-15 minutes a day, three times a week would suffice. The researchers also found that older women benefit more from increased physical activity as they age—in terms of brain function—than do men. The reason for that appears to be hormonal.

Women have more estrogen in their bodies than men, and estrogen appears to be connected to both exercise and brain function. “We know from animal literature,” explains Kramer, “that estrogen tends to promote a number of aspects of memory and cognitive function.”

Additionally, previous animal studies focused on mice whose ovaries had been removed. Researchers noted a decline in exercise and a drop in production of BDNF. When the mice were put back on estrogen, BDNF production increased and so did exercise activity. The data showed a similar trend in women, especially post-menopausal women on estrogen-replacement therapy, who benefited more than women not taking the hormone.

So Kramer thinks that the combination of estrogen and exercise seems to be helping women more. According to Kramer, “It’s possible that one is triggering the other and that the two of them are additive or multiplicative in terms of their effects” on brain structure and function.

The studies were funded by the National Institute on Aging (National Institutes of Health).

by Karen Lurie

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