Mental Benefits of Physical Exercise for Seniors
Decease with Age
Participants who were older than 70 years of age
tended to show no benefit of exercise in German study
14, 2014 – A new study from Germany questions the benefits of exercise
for both men and women after they reach the age of 70. For people in
their study between the ages of 60 and 70 regular training on a
treadmill tended to improve cerebral blood flow and visual memory.
However, trial participants who were older than 70 years of age tended
to show no benefit of exercise.
Physical exercise for older adults can improve
brain perfusion as well as certain memory skills but, say the
researchers, but their study also indicates that the benefits of
exercise may be limited by advancing age.
The 40 test volunteers – age 60 to 77 - were
healthy for their age, sedentary when the study commenced and divided
into two groups. About half of the study participants exercised
regularly on a treadmill for 3 months. The other individuals merely
performed muscle relaxation sessions.
In 7 out of 9 members of the exercise group who
were not more than 70 years old, the training improved physical fitness
and also tended to increase perfusion in the hippocampus – an area of
the brain which is important for memory function.
The increased perfusion was accompanied by improved
visual memory at the end of the study. These individuals found it easier
to memorize abstract images than at the beginning of the training
program. These effects were largely absent in older volunteers who
participated in the workout as well as in the members of the control
The study included extensive tests of the
volunteers’ physical condition and memory. Furthermore, the study
participants were examined by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This
technique enables detailed insights into the interior of the brain.
Physical exercise is known to have considerable
health benefits: the effects on the body have been researched
extensively, the effects on brain function less so. An increase in brain
perfusion through physical exercise had previously only been
demonstrated empirically in younger people.
The new study appears to show that some ageing
brains also retain this ability to adapt, even though it seems to
decrease with advancing age. Furthermore, the results indicate that
changes in memory performance resulting from physical exercise are
closely linked to changes in brain perfusion.
“Ultimately, we aim to develop measures to
purposefully counteract dementia such as Alzheimer's disease. This is
why we want to understand the effects of physical exercise on the brain
and the related neurobiological mechanisms. This is essential for
developing treatments that are truly effective,” is how
Professor Emrah Düzel,
site speaker of the
DZNE in Magdeburg and
director of the
Institute of Cognitive Neurology and
Dementia Research at the University of Magdeburg, explains
the background to the study.
The goal: new brain cells
The researchers’ goal is to cause new nerve cells
to grow in the brain. This is how they intend to counter the loss of
neurons typical of dementia. “The human brain is able to change and
evolve throughout our lives. New nerve cells can form even in adult
brains,” says Düzel.
“Our aim is to stimulate this so-called
neurogenesis. We don't yet know whether our training methods promote the
development of new brain cells. However, fundamental research shows that
the formation of new brain cells often goes hand in hand with improved
Changes in the hippocampus
Indeed, it did turn out that the treadmill exercise
sessions caused more blood to reach the hippocampus in younger
participants. “This improves the supply of oxygen and nutrients and may
also have other positive effects on the brain’s metabolism,” says the
“However, we have also seen that the effect of the
training decreases with age. It is less effective in people aged over 70
than in people in their early 60s. It will be an important goal of our
research to understand the causes for this and to find remedies.”
Düzel adds: “It is encouraging to see that visual
memory improved as brain perfusion increased. However, effective
treatments would also have to affect other brain functions. In our
study, the effect was limited to visual short-term memory.”
A combined training for body and mind
Other experiments are now under way in Magdeburg in
which test participants are sent on an unusual kind of scavenger hunt:
they are assigned the task of finding objects concealed in a
computer-generated landscape which is pictured on a large screen.
Movement control in this virtual world is done with the help of a
“This complex situation makes high demands on motor
skills and sense of orientation,” explains Düzel. “It challenges both
the brain as well as the muscles.”
In the long term, the scientists aim to include
people in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease in their study
program. “We are looking for ways of delaying or even stopping the
progression of the disease. And we are also researching methods of
prevention,” emphasizes Düzel.
“Connecting physical activity and mental exercise
may have a broad impact, and combined training might become a
therapeutic approach. However, this has yet to be shown. In fact, our
current results suggest that we may need pharmacological treatments to
make exercise more effective.”
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