Physical exercise prevents dementia

Recent studies have shown that physical exercise seems to prevent cognitive impairment and dementia in old age. However, how exactly exercise affects brain metabolism therefore affects the incidence of dementia is unknown.

In order to understand why, gerontologists and sports physicians at Goethe University Frankfurt examined the effects of regular exercise on brain metabolism and memory of 60 participants aged between 65 and 85 in a randomized controlled trial.  At the end of the trial, they concluded that regular physical exercise not only enhances fitness but also has a positive impact on brain metabolism.  The result was published in the medical journal Translational Psychiatry.

In this human trial, the researchers thoroughly examined the participants in the SMART study (Sport and Metabolism in Older Persons, an MRT Study) by assessing movement-related parameters, cardiopulmonary fitness and cognitive performance.  In addition, magnetic resonance tomography (MRT) and magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) were used to measure brain metabolism and brain structure. During the trial, the participants mounted an exercise bike three times a week over a period of 12 weeks. The 30-minute training sessions were individually adapted to each participant’s performance level. The participants were examined at the beginning of the trial and after the end of the trial.

It turned out that physical activity influenced brain metabolism by preventing an increase in choline. The concentration of this metabolite often rises as a result of the increased loss of nerve cells, which typically occurs in the case of Alzheimer’s disease. Physical exercise led to stable cerebral choline concentrations in the training group, whereas choline levels increased in the control group. The participants’ physical fitness also improved: they showed increased cardiac efficiency after the training period. Overall, these findings suggest that physical exercise not only improves physical fitness but also protects brain cells.

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Journal Reference: S Matura, J Fleckenstein, R Deichmann, T Engeroff, E Füzéki, E Hattingen, R Hellweg, B Lienerth, U Pilatus, S Schwarz, V A Tesky, L Vogt, W Banzer, J Pantel. Effects of aerobic exercise on brain metabolism and grey matter volume in older adults: results of the randomised controlled SMART trial. Translational Psychiatry, 2017; 7 (7): e1172 DOI: 10.1038/tp.2017.135

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