Just 1 Workout Can Activate Memory-Related Brain Activity in Older Adults

After a group of older adults exercised only once, the scientists found increased activity in a region of the brain associated with memory. This same region shrinks as humans age and is the first affected area in patients afflicted with Alzheimer’s.

Understanding Alzheimer’s and the Brain

Your first thought may have been whether this study’s results mean we’re a step closer to finding a cure – or at least a good preventive treatment – for Alzheimer’s. Before going further, let’s learn a little more about Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s disease is a brain disorder that falls under the umbrella of dementia diseases (“dementia” only refers to a group of symptoms, not a specific disorder). Alzheimer’s begins gradually, usually after the age of 60. At first, the patient has trouble remembering recent events and names. As the disease progresses, they may not even recognize relatives.

Alzheimer’s Impact

Alzheimer’s can be devastating to both the patient and their family members. Caregivers may have to commit more time – and money – to the patient’s care, such as finding them a permanent care home and getting them treatment.

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Changing Brains and Memories

Our brains reach their maximum size in our early 20s before gradually shrinking. Some types of memory, such as episodic memory (you use it when you have to remember a grocery list at the supermarket) can worsen over time. However, other types of memory, such as semantic memory, stay the same or even improve.

Semantic Memory

The study in this news story focuses on a specific type of memory called semantic memory. This type of memory is used to recall concepts unrelated to specific experiences as well as language and vocabulary. According to the American Psychological Association, it can actually improve with age.

A Closer Look at the Study

26 subjects aged 55 to 85 were tested on two separate days. They were asked to either rest or exercise on a stationary bicycle for 30 minutes. Then, they took a memory test immediately after doing one of these activities and were scanned by an fMRI. The memory test was called the Famous and Non-Famous name discrimination task.

When they took the memory test immediately after exercise, the researchers observed that the regions of the brain associated with semantic memory were significantly more activated than if the subjects had rested. This result contradicted an earlier experiment the researchers had done, which found that physical training was associated with reduced activation of the brain area related to semantic memory. However, in that experiment, subjects performed the memory test on a day they didn’t exercise.

To explain this, the researchers speculate that a single session of exercise only has a short-term impact on brain activity related to semantic memory. They speculate that with regular exercise, neural activity decreases because the brain learns to work more efficiently. This explains why the subjects in the previous study had less neural activity, yet were able to perform consistently well on the test.

So does this mean we’re closer to a cure for Alzheimer’s?

It sure opens doors in the field of Alzheimer’s research, but more work will need to be done. Researchers aren’t sure why exercise enhances cognitive function, but study authors suspect it is related to the upregulation of dopamine and noradrenaline (two chemicals found in the brain) during exercise.

But even though we can’t confirm whether exercise prevents Alzheimer’s, older adults should still be encouraged to work out. According to the National Institute on Aging, exercise can help keep energy levels high, prevent or delay diseases like diabetes and osteoporosis, and boost mood. Even gardening, brisk walking, and bike-riding count as good exercises.

A plain English summary of the study can be read here and the full study can be accessed here from the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society.

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