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The impact of exercise on cognitive health

The impact of exercise on cognitive health

Don’t stop exercising.

This is the message from researchers at the University of Maryland in Washington D.C. when they discovered a significant decrease in blood flow to several brain regions during a study where master athletes (aged between 50 to 80 years) stopped all exercise.

The participants in the study were all physical fit and were on exercise regiments of at least four hours of training each week.

Scientists measured the velocity of blood flow in the brain with an MRI scan while the participants were still following a regular training split and again after 10 days of no exercise. They discovered that the resting cerebral blood flow decreased in brain regions, including the areas of the left and right hippocampus and several regions known to be part of the brain’s “default mode network” — a neural network known to deteriorate quickly with the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

This result adds to a growing scientific understanding of the impact of exercise on cognitive health.

“We know that the hippocampus plays an important role in learning and memory and is one of the first brain regions to shrink in people with Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr J. Carson Smith, associate professor of kinesiology and lead author of the study, which was published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

“In rodents, the hippocampus responds to exercise training by increasing the growth of new blood vessels and new neurons, and in older people, exercise can help protect the hippocampus from shrinking. So, it is significant that people who stopped exercising for only 10 days showed a decrease in brain blood flow in brain regions that are important for maintaining brain health.”

According to Smith the take home message is simple: if you stop exercising for 10 days, just as you will quickly lose your fitness, you will also experience a decrease in blood brain flow.

“We know that if you are less physically active, you are more likely to have cognitive problems and dementia as you age,” said Smith.

He admitted that more research was needed to understand how fast changes would occur, what the long-term effects could be, and how fast they could be reversed when exercise was resumed.

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