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Regular Exercise May Benefit the Brain as Well as the Body

Long-term aerobic activity helps preserve white matter needed for key brain functions, study finds

WEDNESDAY, June 8 (HealthDay News) -- A commitment to high-intensity exercise may keep more than just your body in good shape. New research reveals that long-term aerobic activity may also boost a person's brain function.

In the study, Benjamin Tseng, a researcher in the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine's (IEEM) Cerebrovascular Lab at the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, and colleagues compared brain structure and function in 10 athletes and 10 sedentary people.

The types of brain function they looked at included muscle control, executive function (a type of cognition that includes working memory, self-monitoring and the ability to suppress distractions) as well as other neurological functions.

"We know that brain structure and some aspects of cognitive function deteriorate with aging, but we haven't been able to find exactly what the contributing factors and mechanisms are," Tseng said in a hospital news release. "Our preliminary results shed light on this important topic, and we hope the findings lead to better prevention and treatment of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia."

The study participants included 10 Masters athletes, average age 73 years, who had at least 15 years of competitive aerobic training, and 10 sedentary people of a similar age and education level. The investigators found that the brain's white matter fiber was better preserved among the athletes than the inactive people.

In the human brain, white matter plays the critical role of transmitting messages between different regions of gray matter -- areas where functions such as seeing, hearing, speaking, memory and emotions take place. So, without sufficient white matter, gray matter can't do its job, as is the case for many people with various forms of dementia, the study authors explained in the news release.

"Without properly functioning white matter, people can begin to show signs of neurological problems," Dr. Benjamin Levine, director of the IEEM and a professor of medicine and cardiology and a distinguished professor in exercise science at UT Southwestern Medical Center, explained in the news release. "They can lose the ability to do simple daily tasks that we take for granted."

The researchers concluded that their study sheds some light on the mysteries of the aging brain, such as how brain blood flow is related to its structure and function.

"It also tells us that long-term aerobic exercise has definitive, measurable impact on brain health," said Levine. "Most importantly, it lets us know that we have tools that can help fight off dementia and some of the other classic signs of aging with a purposeful, consistent exercise regimen."

The findings were scheduled for presentation this week at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine, held in conjunction with the World Congress on Exercise Is Medicine, in Denver. Because this study was presented at a medical meeting, the data and conclusions should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

More information

The U.S. National Library of Medicine provides more information on dementia.

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