The benefits of physical activity are not just for young people. A study led by researchers at Otto-von-Guericke University in Magdeburg, Germany investigated how physical exercise affected the memory of older adults. They discovered that aerobic exercise improves older adults’ memories by increasing blood flow to the hippocampus, a key part of the brain for memory and learning. While other studies have demonstrated a link between aerobic exercise and the hippocampus, this study is the first to do so with older adults.
For the study, adults aged 60 and older participated in a three-month exercise program. Roughly half of the participants exercised three times weekly with a personalized, 30-minute treadmill session. The other half of the participants spent the same amount of time doing stretching and muscle relaxation exercises. The researchers tracked the progress of both groups by evaluating their episodic memory, measuring the volume of blood flow to the hippocampus, and noting the participant’s physical fitness levels.
An improvement in fitness was linked to changes in memory, hippocampal volume, and blood flow to the hippocampus. The researchers note that the increased volume in the hippocampus is explained by the increased blood flow to the area, not from the formation of neurons after exercising. This increased blood flow is part of a process called vascular plasticity—the ability to expand and form new blood vessels. The increased memory and blood flow were only present for the participants between ages 60 and 70. Participants aged 70 and older did not exhibit the same effects, which suggests that there may be a limit to the brain’s vascular plasticity.
This study could drive the development of interventions for older adults who are facing cognitive challenges in their later years. The researchers state that their next experiment will be to determine whether a combination of physical exercise and cognitive training can improve memory more than exercise alone.
This research is published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.
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