Active Lifestyle Plays A Significant Role In Keeping The Brain Healthy

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com Your Universe Online

We all know that exercise helps keep us healthy and feeling young, but its not just our body that is reaping the rewards. According to researchers from UCLA[1], an active lifestyle also keeps our brain healthier and younger compared to our less-active peers.

Lead author Cyrus Raji and colleagues set out to determine what role physical activity plays in overall health of the brain during aging. Specifically, the researchers measured the effect on gray matter, or the cerebral cortex, which plays a significant role in the process of information we use. The cerebral cortex is made up of neurons and nerve fibers, and its shrinkage has been linked to dementia and Alzheimers disease[2], a fatal degenerative illness that affects more than 5 million American adults.

Experts expect Alzheimers cases to triple by 2050 and a World Health Organization (WHO[3]) report expects dementia cases overall to double by 2030. Currently dementia affects more than 35 million people around the world.

Rajis study, presented today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA[4]), recently examined 876 adults with an average age of 78 years. Participants were drawn from the multisite Cardiovascular Health Study[5], and patients conditions ranged from normal cognition to Alzheimers dementia.

We had 20 years of clinical data on this group, including body mass index and lifestyle habits, Raji said. We drew our patients from four sites across the country, and we were able to assess energy output in the form of kilocalories per week.

For the study, the authors studied five lifestyle factors: recreational sports, yard work, bicycling, dancing and riding an exercise cycle. The team used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and a technique called voxel-based morphometry[6] to model the relationship between energy output and gray matter volume.

Voxel-based morphometry is an advanced method that allows a computer to analyze an MR image and build a mathematical model that helps us to understand the relationship between active lifestyle and gray matter volume, said Raji. Gray matter volume is a key marker of brain health. Larger gray matter volume means a healthier brain. Shrinking volume is seen in Alzheimers disease.

The researchers took into account several controlling factors before making an assessment on the associations between activity and brain health. Once the controlling factors were resolved, the team found a strong link between energy output and gray matter volume in areas of the brain crucial for cognitive function. They found that greater caloric expenditure was related to larger gray matter volumes in the frontal, temporal and parietal lobes, including the hippocampus, posterior cingulate and basal ganglia.

A key aspect of the study was its focus on having a variety of lifestyle choices, Raji noted. What struck me most about the study results is that it is not one but a combination of lifestyle choices and activities that benefit the brain.

If you want to maximize the effect on your brain, these physical activities are something people have to start engaging in earlier in life, in your 50s and 40s, he added.

Activities such as swimming, hiking, aerobics, jogging, walking, gardening, raking, golfing, dancing, etc. all play an important role in keeping your brain healthier and younger.

While the study showed a link between activity and brain health, this study does not prove that activity preserves brain matter, Dave Knopman, a spokesman for the American Academy of Neurology[7], told USA Todays Janice Lloyd in an interview[8].

It could be the people with the bigger brains are more physically active, says Knopman, also a neurology professor at the Mayo Clinic[9] in Rochester, Minnesota.

Joshua Willey, a neurologist at Columbia University[10], noted that other areas of the brain could also play a role in the onset of dementia. However, he acknowledged that the study findings on the one particular area of the brain are still encouraging.

We care about the volume of the hippocampus because that seems to be the first area thats affected in Alzheimers disease, Willey said. Thats the part of the brain most of us think of in terms of short-term memory. So this is exciting work.

While walking is the most sedentary form of physical activity highlighted in the study, it is aerobic in nature, making the heart, lungs and large muscles work harder than at rest. A 2011 study[11] showed that walking 40 minutes three days a week can increase the volume of the hippocampus. And those assigned to a stretching routine showed no hippocampal growth.

Virtually all of the activities examined in this study are some variation of aerobic physical activity, which we know from other work can improve cerebral blood flow and strengthen neuronal connections, said Raji.

People who are active are also less likely to have diabetes, high blood pressure, are less likely to be obese or have heart disease, all conditions associated with an increased risk of getting dementia, added Knopman.

Additional work needs to be done, Raji noted. However, our initial results show that brain aging can be alleviated through an active lifestyle.


  1. ^ UCLA (www.ucla.edu)
  2. ^ Alzheimers disease (www.redorbit.com)
  3. ^ WHO (www.who.int)
  4. ^ RSNA (www.rsna.org)
  5. ^ Cardiovascular Health Study (clinicaltrials.gov)
  6. ^ voxel-based morphometry (www.redorbit.com)
  7. ^ American Academy of Neurology (www.aan.com)
  8. ^ interview (www.usatoday.com)
  9. ^ Mayo Clinic (www.mayoclinic.org)
  10. ^ Columbia University (www.columbia.edu)
  11. ^ 2011 study (www.redorbit.com)

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  1. Reply

    Why Is A Healthy Lifestyle Important In School? I need some ideas about Why a healthy lifestyle is important in school. I have to have an answer in less than 1000 words. Applying for college scholarship. Thanks in advance!

      • HealthNut
      • November 27, 2012

      You need a healthy lifestyle in school to concentrate on your studies. You need to be able to focus for one thing. You also need to plenty of rest, and a good diet.

    • Bob
    • November 27, 2012

    What Are Some Healthy Lifestyle Changes To Make? So I’ve started drinking more water. I drink Green, White, and Chai tea. I also bought the stainless steel water bottle, and I bike for about 20-30 minutes a day. I consider these healthy lifestyle changes. I was wondering if you could provide more suggestions along these lines.

      • HealthNut
      • November 27, 2012

      There are 5 elements in a healthy lifestyle.

      1. food
      2. exercise
      3. sleep
      4. happiness
      5. extra healthy things

      1. Food, we don’t really know that much about nutrition, we do know a blanced diet, with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables is good for you. Meat is pretty good, if it is lean and not eaten too often….ideally I might eat meat once or twice a week. A good healthy diet can include some indulgences.
      2. Exercise, you should do some. Though I don’t recommend routine exercise, cycle 2 or 3 times a week, join a social sports club, eg, tennis, go hiking on weekends, swimming is one of the best exercises for the whole body. If you vary your exercise, then you will enjoy it more and do more.
      3. Sleep. A lot of evidence says if you don’t get enough sleep you will have problems, eat more, metabolise your food differently and die young.
      4. Be happy, enjoy your life. Drink dance, eat chocolate, but not all day, everyday.
      5. Then there are all the little extras. eg, green tea (there is no such things as Chai tea….chai means tea, it is an indian word derived from the chinese word Cha, meaning tea), red wine, brocollie and beetroot, lots of things than can boost your body, ginger, garlice and hundreds of other things that you can add to your diet to make things a little better.

      Don’t obsess, don’t live by a book or a routine, just be healthy.

  2. Reply

    How Will You Maintain A Healthy Lifestyle In The Future? Imagine yourself after college. You’re married with a few kids. You’re gaining a few pounds every now and then. How will you get yourself back on track into a healthy lifestyle?

      • HealthNut
      • November 27, 2012

      Minus the after college part, but I have 2 kids and am expecting the third one in a few weeks. We maintain healthy lifestyles by eating nutritious foods, lots of whole grains, fruits, veggies, and milk. We also get a lot of exercise in. Although my kids are still toddlers and I’m big as a house, everyday as a family my husband and I walk with the kids up and down the road, then when we get home my husband stays outside with the kids and plays with them while I get supper fixed. We don’t turn the TV on until after baths, forcing us to get up off the couch. Hopefully that will encourage our kids to maintain healthy lifestyles after they’re all grown up.

    • Alice
    • November 27, 2012

    How Do You Maintain A Healthy Lifestyle? Please comment on your suggestions to maintain a healthy lifestyle, add any concerns or issues you have concerning you’re healt, and i’ll be happy to educate you further.

      • HealthNut
      • November 27, 2012

      I eat healthy – vegetables, fruit, lots of water, minimal sugar consumption, etc.
      I don’t smoke.
      I don’t drink in excess.
      I don’t do drugs.
      I exercise at least twice a week.
      I try to get enough sleep every night (minimum of 7 hours).

  3. Reply

    What Would You Say A Healthy Lifestyle Is? Hey 🙂 I’ve got some coursework that needs doing and I need to do some primary reasearch and I was just wondering if you would leave me some answers below on what you think a healthy lifestyle is personally. And what you think you have to do to maintain a healthy lifestyle. I need loads of answers so I hope you dont mind helping me 🙂 Thankyouu

      • HealthNut
      • November 27, 2012

      Healthy lifestyle…involves eating right, exercing, and relationships you have with others. Also if you live in a clean environment…messy=germs=sickness…and to maintain a healthy lifestyle you need to frequenlty eat right, do some sort of physical activity, be nice to others (stress is bad for health), and keep a clean home

  4. Reply

    How Do You Stay Commited To Your Healthy Lifestyle? I’m trying have a healthy lifestyle and lose weight but i’m finding it hard to commit.

      • HealthNut
      • November 27, 2012

      Are you sure you want to lose weight? If this a true desire, give it two weeks, and then asses how you feel. If you are eating healthy and exercises you will feel the difference, then if you go back to living unhealthfully you will be able to tell the change in how you feel, then you should be able to make an easy desicion.

  5. Reply

    How Can I Pursue A More Healthy Lifestyle To Help Me Attain My Maximum Potential In Life ? I am 28, and have always had a bad health because of depression and anxiety. But I want to change it I need some tips on how to pursue a really healthy lifestyle which helps people in their mental and physical wellbeing?

      • HealthNut
      • November 27, 2012

      Two of the healthiest diets in the world are the Mediterranean diet and the Okinawa diet.

      Yoga often helps for anxiety and depression as it promotes mental and physical wellbeing.

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