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Walking linked with improved brain function later in life

Posted Dec 01 2010 10:49am

While, in my experience, many individuals believe they have quite a degree of control over their physical function as they age, I’m not sure the same can be said for our general attitude to the functioning of the brain. My sense is most individuals believe that how well they maintain their mental faculties as they age is down to factors that are, largely, beyond their control.

I don’t see the brain, in essence, any differently to any other organ, in the sense that I believe it’s intrinsically amenable to having its function affected by lifestyle. I have seen in practice how adjustments in lifestyle factors such as diet, sleep and light exposure can boost mood and mental energy in the short and medium term. If lifestyle factors can help brain function in the shorter term, why not the long term too?

One lifestyle factor that has been mooted as having benefits for the ageing brain is exercise. I was interested to read about a recent study here which found that regular walking to be associated with benefits for brain volume (a proxy measure for how many brain cells there are) as well as brain function. Walking the equivalent of a few miles a week was associated with improvements in the structures of the brain concerned with memory and learning, as well as improved memory over time.

So-called ‘epidemiological’ studies of this nature can’t really tell us for sure if walking protects the brain from ‘cognitive decline’ and dementia, only that these two things are associated. However, there’s at least a couple of mechanisms by which activity might preserve our mental faculties as we age.

Activity, for a start, generally boosts blood circulation. Brain function may be enhanced by enhanced blood supply to this organ through improved delivery of oxygen and key nutrients.

Exercise has also been shown in studies to boost levels of a substance known as ‘brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is thought to protect existing nerve cells, stimulate the formation of new nerve cells, and enhance nerve-to-nerve communication. BDNF seems to be particularly active in the parts of the brain that, crucially, are concerned with memory and learning.

Another lifestyle strategy worth considering for those seeking to preserve their mental function is to ensure a good intake of omega-3 fats, specifically docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). I recently wrote about a study which found that DHA boosted brain function in adults with age-related ‘cognitive impairment’.

One more key nutritional strategy for preserving brain function concerns blood sugar balance. Disruption here (and particularly type 2 diabetes) appears to enhance the risk of what is known as ‘vascular dementia’ (essentially, heart disease of the brain). Getting and maintaining stability in blood sugar balance through the consumption of a ‘primal’ diet (rich in meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, some fruit, nuts and seeds) is likely to stabilise blood sugar and insulin levels, thereby helping to preserve mental function in time.

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