How Exercise Protects Your Brain as You Age

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When it comes to protecting the brain from age-related decline, there’s one thing experts know works, and that’s exercise.

“There’s a lot of new research behind the exercise – brain health connection,” says Jacqueline Marcus, M.D, a neurologist at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco. “Exercise improves circulation and brings oxygen to the brain, making for stronger pathways. Studies show being physically active is neuro-protective, causing people to delay or not get dementia.”

Among the many convincing studies showing the effects of exercise in preventing or slowing cognitive decline is research by Deborah Barnes of the San Francisco Veterans Administration Medical Center and UCSF. Barnes and colleagues followed a group of people ages 70 to 79 over a seven-year period and showed that those who were consistently active had significantly less memory loss than those who were sedentary.

Exercise also has benefits for those with neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and Multiple Sclerosis (MS), says Marcus, who is director of Kaiser Permanente’s Regional Multiple Sclerosis Program. “In Parkinson’s disease, we have medications that can boost dopamine, but nothing’s neuro-protective except exercise.”

And for those with MS, Marcus says, exercise helps reduce and control symptoms such as fatigue and cognitive issues. Exercise also helps improve general weakness for those with MS as well as those who’ve suffered a stroke. And no matter what your health status, exercise improves sleep, which is one of the keys to staying healthy.

Lastly, there are the positive effects exercise has on mental health in general, reducing stress and releasing mood-boosting endorphins.  “Exercise helps me sleep better and improves my general well-being,” says Marcus, who is a runner. “The whole idea of exercise increasing endorphins is really true – It’s quite noticeable to me if I miss a day or two. I just don’t feel as good.”

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