Want a Healthier Brain As You Age? Get Off The Couch

There is a new word out on the streets these days: dementiaphobia. Dementiaphobia is the fear of getting Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia. According to a 2010 MetLife Foundation survey, people over 55 years old dread getting Alzheimer’s almost more than they dread getting cancer. The fear of losing one’s identity through dementia trumped the fear of kidney failure, stroke and even heart attack.

While dementia is a degenerative disease that progressively weakens the capacity to function and few options exist to stop it, there are steps you can take to improve your brain’s health and possibly improve your odds of avoiding it. Even if you are not a candidate for dementia,

A recent study shows that staying physically active can improve brain health and cognitive function by maintaining the integrity of the white matter in your brain.

Why should white matter matter to you? Here’s why:

White Matter: The Brain’s Communication Network

The brain has two types of tissue: gray matter and white matter. Gray matter is in the active portion of the brain, receiving and storing impulses. Answering impulses also originate in the gray matter.

White matter carries nerve signals between the gray matter in one region of the brain to another, from the cerebrum to lower brain centers. The more streamlined and compact the white matter is, the more quickly and efficiently the brain functions.

White matter tissue has millions of capillaries, which allows the flow of blood, and therefore oxygen and nutrients, to the brain’s neural network. Physical activity gets blood pumping and therefore improves the flow of blood to these capillaries.

Disease within the white matter can lead to poor thought and memory processes. Negative changes in white matter, known as amyloid plaques, are associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other degenerative diseases of the brain.

It’s Not About Exercise

In a new study from the Beckman Institute, researchers Burzynska, Kramer and McAuley found that there is a strong link between the structural integrity of the white matter and an older person’s level of activity. The stronger the integrity, the more efficiently the brain functions.

The researchers studied 88 healthy but low-fitness level participants aged 60 to 78. They asked each participant to wear an accelerometer to track their actual activity levels over the course of a week. The study also relied on two types of brain imaging to measure brain health. The first type measure the overall structural integrity of the white matter. The second method looked for age-related changes (called lesions) to the white matter.

What the team found was that there is an association between being active and greater structural integrity of white matter. Those aged individuals who engaged in moderate to vigorous exercise had fewer lesions in the white matter than non-exercising participants.

Next, the team found that even light activity improves the structural integrity to the white matter tracts of the temporal lobes, which play a key role in memory, language, and the processing of auditory and visual information.

The most surprising finding of the study was that participants who spent more time sitting had lower structural integrity in the white matter tracts leading to the hippocampus, which is a structure in the brain crucial to learning and memory. Their findings suggest that even if you exercise at the end of the day, sitting too much has a detrimental effect on your brain.

Getting Off the Couch Improves Brain Health

The exciting news from this ground-breaking research is that the real enemy of brain health is being sedentary. In our digital age, society has become increasingly unfit as we lounge in front of the TV or sit for long periods of time in front of our computers.

As this study shows, the good news is that you do not have to run marathons or put in long hours at the gym to reap the brain benefits of physical activity. Simply moving and staying active is beneficial to brain health.

Want to improve your brain’s health today and possibly improve your odds of avoiding dementia? Get off the couch and go for a walk, pull weeds in your garden, or sweep the front porch. Every little bit of movement that you make every day, no matter what your age, helps strengthen the integrity of your brain’s white matter and improves cognitive functioning.

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