New research indicates engaging in a physical exercise regimen helps healthy aging adults improve their memory, brain health and physical fitness. This finding is significant considering that among adults 50 and older, “staying mentally sharp” outranks social security and physical health as the top priority and concern in the United States.

For the study, sedentary adults ages 57-75 were randomized into a physical training or a wait-list control group. The physical training group participated in supervised aerobic exercise on a stationary bike or treadmill for one hour, three times a week for 12 weeks. Participants’ cognition, resting cerebral blood flow, and cardiovascular fitness were assessed at three time points: before beginning the physical exercise regimen, mid-way through at 6 weeks, and post-training at 12 weeks.

“By measuring brain blood flow non-invasively using arterial spin labeling (ASL) MRI, we can now begin to detect brain changes much earlier than before,” said Sina Aslan, Ph.D., founder and president of Advance MRI and collaborator on the study. “One key region where we saw increase in brain blood flow was the anterior cingulate, indicating higher neuronal activity and metabolic rate. The anterior cingulate has been linked to superior cognition in late life.”

Exercisers who improved their memory performance also showed greater increase in brain blood flow to the hippocampus, the key brain region affected by Alzheimer’s disease. Chapman pointed out that, using noninvasive brain imaging techniques, brain changes were identified earlier than memory improvements, implicating brain blood flow as a promising and sensitive metric of brain health gains across treatment regimens.

The research was conducted by researchers at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas, and published online in the open-access journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

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