Study: Exercise improves memory, boosts blood flow to brain

Researchers at the University of Texas, Southwestern mapped brain changes after a year of aerobic workouts and uncovered a potentially critical process: Exercise boosts blood flow into two key regions of the brain associated with memory.

The study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, showed "this blood flow can help even older people with memory issues improve cognition, a finding that scientists say could guide future Alzheimer's disease research," according to UT Southwestern Medical Center.

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In the study, researchers followed 30 participants who were 60 or older and had memory problems. Half underwent a year of aerobic exercise while the other half did only stretching.

The exercise group showed a 47% improvement in some memory scores after a year; the other group showed minimal change. Brain imaging of the exercise group, taken while at rest at the beginning and end of the study, showed increased blood flow into the anterior cingulate cortex and the hippocampus, neural regions that play important roles in memory function.

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“We’ve shown that even when your memory starts to fade, you can still do something about it by adding aerobic exercise to your lifestyle,” said Binu Thomas, a UT Southwestern senior research scientist in neuroimaging.

Many teams across the world are trying to determine if exercise might be the first such intervention in memory loss, UT Southeastern wrote. Evidence is growing that it could at least play a small role in delaying or reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

For example, a 2018 study showed that people with lower fitness levels experienced faster deterioration of vital nerve fibers in the brain called white matter. A study published last year showed exercise correlated with slower deterioration of the hippocampus.

“Cerebral blood flow is a part of the puzzle, and we need to continue piecing it together,” Thomas says. “But we’ve seen enough data to know that starting a fitness program can have lifelong benefits for our brains as well as our hearts.”

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