Exercise boosts brain function in older adults for years

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A study by researchers at the University of Queensland has found that high-intensity interval exercise can improve brain function in older adults for up to five years.

Led by Emeritus Professor Perry Bartlett and Dr. Daniel Blackmore from UQ’s Queensland Brain Institute, the research shows that just six months of high-intensity training can significantly enhance cognitive abilities in healthy older adults.

Published in the journal Aging and Disease, this study is the first of its kind to demonstrate that exercise not only slows cognitive decline but also boosts brain function.

“Six months of high-intensity interval training is enough to flick the switch,” said Professor Bartlett.

Previous studies by the team had shown that exercise can activate stem cells and increase the production of neurons in the hippocampus, a brain area crucial for learning and memory.

In this new study, a large group of volunteers aged 65 to 85 participated in a six-month exercise program.

They underwent cognitive testing and high-resolution brain scans both during and five years after the program. Astonishingly, the cognitive improvements persisted even for those who didn’t continue the exercises.

Aging is a major risk factor for dementia, a condition affecting nearly half a million Australians.

“If we can change the trajectory of aging and keep people cognitively healthier for longer with a simple intervention like exercise, we can potentially save our community from the enormous personal, economic, and social costs associated with dementia,” Professor Bartlett said.

The study assessed the effects of three exercise intensities:

  • Low: Focused on motor function, balance, and stretching.
  • Medium: Brisk walking on a treadmill.
  • High: Four cycles of running on a treadmill at near maximum exertion.

Dr. Blackmore explained that only high-intensity interval exercise led to long-lasting cognitive improvements. “On high-resolution MRI scans of that group, we saw structural and connectivity changes in the hippocampus,” he said.

The researchers also found changes in blood biomarkers that correlated with cognitive improvements. “Biomarkers can be useful in predicting the effectiveness of the exercise a person is doing,” added Dr. Blackmore.

With one in three people aged 85 likely to develop dementia, this research has significant implications.

“Our findings can inform exercise guidelines for older people and further research could assess different types of exercise that could be incorporated into aged care,” said Dr. Blackmore.

The team is now exploring genetic factors that may influence an individual’s response to exercise and the potential use of biomarkers as diagnostic tools for exercise effectiveness.

This study highlights the powerful impact of high-intensity exercise on brain health, offering a promising approach to maintaining cognitive function in older adults.

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