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For older adults, cognitive decline may seem inevitable. How can adults keep their minds sharp as they age?

Exercise

There are many studies that suggest that physical exercise plays an important role in cognitive ability.

A study from the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois (UI) finds that higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness can lead to better brain function. The study focused on executive function—the brain’s ability to manage higher-level tasks like problem solving and working memory. The findings indicate that adults who maintain higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness are better able to maintain the function of key brain regions involved in executive function.

A study from the University of Kansas (KU) Medical Center investigated how much exercise adults needed to get before their brains benefited from it. They found that any amount of exercise improved brain function. Increasing the intensity of the exercise was especially effective for boosting brainpower.

Results from the CARDIA (Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults) study demonstrated a connection between the exercise habits of young adults and their cognitive functioning in middle age. In particular, young adults who performed little or no exercise saw greater declines in aspects of cognition such as executive function and processing speed. The tests uncovered a significant difference in cognitive function between people who had moderate or better levels of physical activity compared to those who had only limited activity or who were sedentary.

Physical exercise produces many benefits.  In the short term, the increased blood circulation increases mental reaction times, improves working memory and focuses attention.  It also elevates mood. Longer term, exercise leads to cognitive improvement and even the alleviation of depression and anxiety.

Nicknamed “Miracle-Gro” for the brain, BDNF – or Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor – is responsible for many of these brain benefits. BDNF helps neurons to grow and their dendrites (extensions of a neuron that connect with other nerve cells) to expand their reach in order to strengthen synapses and improve brain function.  Separate findings have correlated low levels of BDNF with cognitive decline in both people and animals.  You’re already wondering how to get some BDNF, aren’t you?

The way to increase levels of BDNF in the brain is to exercise.  How does exercise trigger BDNF?  That hasn’t been clear until recent research looked at the mechanism of BDNF production. A specific gene triggers BDNF and it turns out that this gene functions better in active animals (and people).  In sedentary animals, very densely packed molecules accumulate around the gene and prevent it from producing BDNF.  In active animals, this same molecule exists, but not as abundantly and so BDNF continues to be produced.  This is because, during exercise, an organic chemical compound known as a ketone is produced as a result of the breakdown of fat that occurs to provide energy during physical exertion.  Some of these ketones migrate to the brain and decongest the molecular blockage of the BDNF gene thus clearing the way for BDNF production.

Music

Everyone can appreciate a good song even, new research finds, your genes. A study from the University of Helsinki reports that music enhanced (up-regulated) or diminished (down-regulated) the effects of certain genes among people with musical experience. Music affected genes related to learning, memory, and neurodegeneration, among others. The study furthers scientific understanding of how music affects people and how music appreciation may have evolved.

For the musically experienced, listening to the music selection up-regulated gene activity involved in dopamine secretion and transport, synaptic neurotransmission, learning, and memory. One of the genes most enhanced by the music was a known risk gene for Parkinson’s disease that is located in the strongest linkage region of musical aptitude. Listening to music down-regulated genes that mediate neurodegeneration.

A professor at the University of Iowa has begun to offer music therapy to patients with dementia. Although Professor Mary Adamek had been working with music therapy for years, she recently was offered a grant to increase the scope of her practice. Professor Adamek, along with some of her students, visited a nursing home to engage some of its denizens in music therapy. They reported that the people were very reactive and engaged, although many of the elderly were typically non-verbal or otherwise unexpressive.

The iLs Focus Series combines classical music with bone conduction and movement. Programs can be tailored to calm down, address attention issues and a lot more.

Sleep

Far from going dormant, each night as you fall asleep, your brain remains quite active. Without any effort on your part, your brain goes through 4-5 cycles of sleep, each with distinct stages that fulfill critical physiological and neurological functions for the health of your body and mind. While you sleep, your brain is strengthening memories formed throughout the day and helping to put new facts and ideas in perspective by making connections with existing knowledge. Sleep is also the birthplace of creativity.

In one study, researchers from the California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute (CPMCRI) in San Francisco, California studied how sleep quality affected a population of older men. The results indicate that poor quality of sleep accelerates cognitive decline.

The results indicate that there is a relationship between poor sleep quality and cognitive decline, even when adjusted for factors like depressive symptoms, co-occurring disorders, or medication use. The men whose sleep was more fragmented had a 40 to 50 percent increase in the risk of clinically significant decline in executive function. The decline from poor sleep quality was commensurate with that of a five year increase in age.

The quality and quantity of all stages of sleep truly matter. Many people have increased the length of sleep and improved its quality by using the Dreampad.

 

Still doubting the power of exercise, music and sleep can have on your mind and body?

100-year-old sets world record at Penn Relays

105-year-old sets new 100-meter sprint record

101-year-old wins gold medal at World Masters Games

105-year-old sets record by cycling more than 14 miles in an hour

 

Headlines like this are becoming more frequent. What all of these people have in common? When asked how they achieve such impressive levels of fitness in this age, all of them cite healthy habits that started early on.

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