For a healthy brain, physical exercise trumps mental training
Regular exercise appears to protect the brain from shrinkage, an otherwise natural process in older people that is associated with problems with memory and thinking.
Conversely, mentally and socially stimulating activities, long believed to stimulate the brain, had no major effect in preventing brain shrinkage, according to a study published today (October 22) in the journal Neurology.
In other words, if you want to maximize the mind benefits of playing chess, pick a match across town and run or walk vigorously to it.
This relatively large brain imaging study, which included brain scans using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), involved more than 600 people in Scotland between the ages of 70 and 73. The researchers found a strong and direct correlation revealing that as exercise increases, the brain withdrawal decreases.
“People in their 60s who exercised more, including walking several times a week, had less brain shrinkage and other signs of aging in the brain than those who were less physically active,” said the Senior author Alan J. Gow of the University. from Edinburgh to Scotland. “On the flip side, our study showed no real benefit from participating in mentally and socially stimulating brain size activities, as seen on MRI scans, over a three-year period.”
The research drew on a respected longitudinal study of aging called the Lothian Birth Cohort Study 1936, which in 1947 tested the intelligence of over 1,000 children born in 1936 and was followed by periodic assessments. This latest analysis involved a health survey conducted when 638 subjects were 70 years old, followed by an MRI when they were 73 years old.
Subjects provided details of their daily activities – from traveling to do only basic tasks, to staying in shape with strenuous exercise or competitive sports – as well as social and non-physical leisure activities. Those more dedicated to exercise showed both better brain circuit connections and less brain shrinkage compared to the less active subjects. This regardless of initial IQ or social class status.
There was, however, “no support for a beneficial effect of more intellectually stimulating or socially oriented activities,” the researchers wrote, at least in terms of preventing brain shrinkage.
Gow said his group hasn’t established a biological reason why exercise can give the brain such physical training. They also couldn’t rule out the possibility that a healthy brain allows these elderly people to exercise more, not that exercise maintains the brain.
“To be definitive, of course, we need more large-scale trials examining the effects of physical activity interventions,” to determine which factors determine what, Gow told LiveScience. “We follow the same individuals [for] repeat lifestyle assessments and brain scans, which will allow us to further examine the direction of associations. “
Nonetheless, both physical exercise and non-physical recreation and social activities have so many other benefits – the first, the prevention of chronic disease; for the latter, fighting depression and fatigue – that there is no harm in pursuing both at any age.
Christopher Wanjek is the author of a new novel, “Hey, Einstein!“, a nature-versus-culture comic tale of Albert Einstein’s clone breeding in less than ideal settings. His column, Bad Medicine, appears regularly on LiveScience.