Can exercise help you stay sharp

Can exercise help you stay sharp

Have you ever wondered what your brain will be like when you got old and whether it will survive the test of time and let you stay sharp until you die?

Or whether any of the recommended ways to maintain your brain structure and function actually make any difference.  (with exercise being at the top of the list)

A few years ago, Olga Kotelko, a 93-year-old Canadian track-and-field athlete with more than 30 world records, underwent an analysis of her brain at the University of Illinois.

The findings, reported in the journal Neurocase, offer an insight of the potential effects of exercise on the brains and cognitive abilities of the “oldest old.”

Olga, a retired teacher and mother of two, started her athletic career late in life. She began with softball at age 65, and at 77 took up track-and-field events.  At the time of her death in 2014, she had won 750 gold medals in her age group in World Masters Athletics events, and had set new world records in the 100-meter, 200-meter, high jump, long jump, javelin, discus, shot put and hammer events.

The researchers had trouble finding a group of reasonably healthy nonagenarians for comparison, so they decided to compare Olga with a group of 58 healthy, low-active women who were 60 to 78 years old.

In one long day at the lab, Olga underwent an MRI brain scan, a cardiorespiratory fitness test on a treadmill and cognitive tests.

According to the lead researcher, at the end of the day Olga looked less tired than the graduate students who were conducting the tests.

The women in the comparison group underwent the same tests and scans.

The researchers wanted to find out whether Olga’s late-life athletic activity had slowed – or perhaps even reversed – some of the processes of aging in her brain.

Typically, the brain shrinks with age and fluid-filled spaces appear between the brain and the skull, and the ventricles enlarge.  The cortex, the outermost layer of cells where all of our thinking takes place, also gets thinner.  White matter tracts, which carry nerve signals between brain regions, tend to lose their structural and functional integrity over time and the hippocampus, which is important to memory, usually shrinks with age.

Previous studies have shown that regular aerobic exercise can enhance cognition and boost brain function in older adults, and can even increase the volume of specific brain regions like the hippocampus.

Olga’s brain offered some intriguing first clues about the potentially beneficial effects of her active lifestyle.

Her brain did not seem to have shrunk and her ventricles did not seem to be enlarged.  She did however have obvious signs of advanced aging in the white-matter tracts of some brain regions.

As a whole, however, her white-matter tracts were remarkably intact – comparable to those of women decades younger.  The white-matter tracts in one region of her brain — the genu of the corpus callosum, which connects the right and left hemispheres at the very front of the brain — were in great shape.  These white-matter tracts serve a region of the brain that is engaged in tasks – such as reasoning, planning and self-control – that are known to decline fastest in aging.

Olga did not perform as well on cognitive tests as the younger women, but better than other adults her own age who had been tested in an independent study.  She was quicker at responding to the cognitive tasks than other adults in their 90s and on memory she was much better than they were.

Olga is only one person so these findings are only a start toward calculating the effects of exercise on cognition in the oldest old, and it is difficult to arrive at very solid conclusions.

However, it is exciting to see someone who is highly functioning at 93, possessing numerous world records in the athletic field and actually having very high integrity in a brain region that is very sensitive to aging.

While this isn’t a guarantee, hopefully it will encourage you to stay active to keep your brain structure and function intact for as long as possible.

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David Beard
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