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Exercise as Brain-Saver
Activity saved brain tissue better than mental exercise or social connections 12/10/2012
More than most signs of aging, people fear loss of memory and mental acuity.
As brain-health guru Daniel Amen M.D., says, the research shows that brain health is enhanced by good diet as well as physical, mental, and social activities.
Mental acuity depends in part on preserving the brain's gray and white matter, which typically decline in volume and integrity as we age.
Staying sharp also depends on promoting more, stronger networks between the brain's nerve cells (neurons), which occur at the connecting points called synapses (See “Harvard Team Finds Key Cause of Age-Related Brain Fog”)
Omega-3 DHA is the most abundant fat in the brain tissues, by far … a fact that fits with fast-growing evidence that DHA protects gray and white matter and promotes healthy brain networks.
Omega-3s also matter to the health of young brains, and to recovery from brain injuries: see “Teen's Brain Saved by Omega-3s?”, “Omega-3s Seen Boosting Performance of Healthy Young Brains”, “Miner's Miracle”, and “Fish Fat Curbed Rat's Brain Injuries”.
We should also mention that among foods, berries appear very good for brain health: see “Berries' Brain Benefits Affirmed, Expanded”.
Exercise seen as best way to save white matter
White matter and gray matter are the two key kinds of tissue in the central nervous system.
While grey matter is associated with information processing and cognition (thinking), white matter acts as a relay and coordinates communication between different brain regions.
The volume and health of the brain's white matter affects how well we learn … and declines in volume or structural integrity will cause brain dysfunctions that lead to dementia.
Now, a study from Scotland suggests that physical activity may be especially important for preserving the brain's white matter and keeping it healthy (Gow AJ et al. 2012).
A team at the University of Edinburgh set out to see which of the non-dietary factors known to affect the health and volume of white matter – exercise, mental activity, and social connections – might work best to maintain it.
The Edinburgh group recruited 691 people aged 70 years, who agreed to report their physical, mental, and social activities.
Three years later, the researchers used “computational image processing” to examine the participants' white matter, looking for lesions and other signs of atrophy.
The results showed that the people who reported the most physical activity also had healthier white matter … that is, their white matter showed less atrophy and fewer lesions.
Surprisingly, the volunteers' mental and social activities appeared to exert little or no effect on maintenance of healthy white matter.
As lead author Dr. Alan J. Gow commented in The New York Times, the difference may be the advanced age of this particular research cohort.
But as he also told the Times, it still makes sense to pursue mental and social activities:
“There might be associations [between these activities and white-matter health] earlier in the life course. Such activities also have important associations with well-being and quality of life, so we would certainly agree it is important for older adults to continue to pursue them.”
What's the takeaway?
Don't rely on any one thing as insurance against premature brain decline.
Pay attention to diet, work your mind, keep up social activities … and move your body!
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  • Gow AJ, Bastin ME, Muñoz Maniega S, Valdés Hernández MC, Morris Z, Murray C, Royle NA, Starr JM, Deary IJ, Wardlaw JM. Neuroprotective lifestyles and the aging brain: Activity, atrophy, and white matter integrity. Neurology. 2012 Oct 23;79(17):1802-1808.
  • Saczynski JS, Jonsdottir MK, Sigurdsson S, Eiriksdottir G, Jonsson PV, Garcia ME, Kjartansson O, van Buchem MA, Gudnason V, Launer LJ. White matter lesions and cognitive performance: the role of cognitively complex leisure activity. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2008 Aug;63(8):848-54.
  • Tan ZS, Harris WS, Beiser AS, Au R, Himali JJ, Debette S, Pikula A, Decarli C, Wolf PA, Vasan RS, Robins SJ, Seshadri S. Red blood cell ω-3 fatty acid levels and markers of accelerated brain aging. Neurology. 2012 Feb 28;78(9):658-64. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e318249f6a9.
  • Vernooij MW, Ikram MA, Vrooman HA, Wielopolski PA, Krestin GP, Hofman A, Niessen WJ, Van der Lugt A, Breteler MM. White matter microstructural integrity and cognitive function in a general elderly population. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2009 May;66(5):545-53. doi: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2009.5.