Up until the 1990’s it was believed that once a person reached adulthood, they would not produce new neurons. Maturity meant a steady and inevitable decline in brain capacity.
Brain research after the 90’s upended this false belief, proving that neurons are indeed birthed in the hippocampus, the region in the brain connected with memory. This discovery shifted the way we perceive aging and cognitive health.
Interestingly, studies have linked exercise with neurogenesis (birth of neurons). Crossword puzzles, reading, and staying mentally active are important, but moving the body has been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus in older adults.
The mechanics for this seems connected to the release of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) when we exercise–especially when we increase our heart rate in novel ways that engage our balance and cognition.
Although for many aerobic activity is seen as a “no-brainer,” something one does without much thought, research shows otherwise. Movement is both a physical and cognitive activity. Movement shaped and shifted our brains. Becoming bipedal hominids created the need for balance, for having to scan the environment for threats and for food sources. This new way our ancestors moved created a need and opportunity for cognitive development not seen in our earlier ancestors.
This evolutionary shift holds a key for us to maintain cognitive health. Living a sedentary life is the worst thing we can do for our brain health. Moving our bodies in ways that engage both balance and cognition are one of the primary ways we can reduce our risk for dementia.
Once we reach 65, our risk for dementia increases twofold every five years. Although this statistic is ominous, there are number of lifestyle factors that can reduce the risk considerably. Exercise and movement tops this list. What’s also important is that midlife is where changes in the brain leading to dementia begin.
The best time to take one’s cognitive health seriously is now. Becoming physically active is a worthy goal for this new decade we are about to begin. When considering an exercise plan, don’t merely think weight and muscles; instead, approach the challenge with a larger intention of maintaining and enhancing brain health.
- Raichlen, D. A., & Alexander, G. E. (2020, January 1). Why Your Brain Needs Exercise. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-your-brain-needs-exercise/.
- Risk Factors for Dementia. (2016, April). Retrieved December 23, 2019, from https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/sites/default/files/pdf/factsheet_risk_factors_for_dementia.pdf.