In a new study, researchers mapped brain changes after one year of aerobic workouts.
They found exercise boosts blood flow into two key regions of the brain associated with memory.
The study showed this blood flow can help even older people with memory issues improve cognition, a finding that scientists say could guide future Alzheimer’s disease research.
The research was conducted by a team at UT Southwestern.
Scientists have collected plenty of evidence linking exercise to brain health, with some research suggesting fitness may even improve memory.
But what happens during exercise to trigger these benefits?
In the study, the team documented changes in long-term memory and cerebral blood flow in 30 people, each of them 60 or older with memory problems.
Half of them underwent 12 months of aerobic exercise training; the rest did only stretching.
The exercise group showed a 47% improvement in some memory scores after one year compared with minimal change in the stretch participants.
Brain imaging of the exercise group, taken while they were at rest at the beginning and end of the study, showed increased blood flow into the anterior cingulate cortex and the hippocampus – neural regions that play important roles in memory function.
Other studies have documented benefits for cognitively normal adults on an exercise program, including previous research from Thomas that showed aging athletes have better blood flow into the cortex than sedentary older adults.
But the new research is important because it plots improvement over a longer period in adults at high risk to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
The search for dementia interventions is becoming increasingly pressing: More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, and the number is expected to triple by 2050.
Recent research has helped scientists gain a greater understanding of the molecular genesis of the disease.
Yet extensive research into how to prevent or slow dementia has not yielded proven treatments that would make an early diagnosis actionable for patients.
UT Southwestern scientists are among many teams across the world trying to determine if exercise may be the first such intervention.
Evidence is mounting that it could at least play a small role in delaying or reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Regarding the importance of blood flow, the team says it may someday be used in combination with other strategies to preserve brain function in people with mild cognitive impairment.
The lead author of the study is Binu Thomas, Ph.D., a UT Southwestern senior research scientist in neuroimaging.
The study is published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
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