A year of modest aerobic exercise reversed normal brain shrinkage by one to two years in older adults and improved their memory function, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As people age, the hippocampus, the brain's memory center, loses 1% to 2% of its volume annually, affecting memory and possibly increasing the risk for dementia. A growing body of evidence has pointed to aerobic exercise as a low-cost hedge against neurocognitive decline. In this study, magnetic resonance imaging was used to measure the effects of aerobic exercise on the hippocampus in 120 Americans in their late 50s to early 80s. Half the group walked three times a week for 40 minutes, aiming for their target heart rate, while the other half did yoga and toning exercises. The hippocampus in walkers increased by 2% after a year and shrank by 1.4% in controls. Both groups showed significant improvements on spatial memory tests conducted before and after the study. This could be due to taking the test repeated times, the researchers said. In the walking group, however, changes in hippocampus volume were directly related to improved memory performance, they said.
Caveat: The study found that exercise had a selective effect on the brain, influencing the volume of the anterior hippocampus but not the posterior. Researchers suspect aerobic exercise might have the most effect on regions of the brain that show the largest decline in late adulthood, such as the anterior hippocampus.
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