Keep moving – your brain will thank you
Vitamins and supplements are often touted as the way to prevent memory loss. If you watch television, especially late at night, the sales pitches will have you convinced that your brain cells will be saved and improved with these products.
While it’s tempting to try them, they are not necessarily the answer.
“There is no scientific evidence that the vitamins and supplements you see advertised on TV work to prevent cell loss or improve memory,” said Mathew Pulicken, MD, MHS, a neurologist with Neurologists of Cape Cod. “If you want to try them, you can, but don’t spend all that money when exercise will have way more benefit, than any of those medicines combined.”
So, what is proven?
More and more studies are showing that aerobic exercise can increase the effectiveness or ability of the cells to function better, he said.
“As you get older, some degenerative changes in the brain cells begin to occur, as a normal part of the aging process, and that can vary from person to person,” he said. “In some diseases the rate of cell death is more aggressive, and this can lead to cognitive issues, including memory. These diseases are now called neurocognitive disorders.”
Nerve cells (neurons) communicate with each other with the help of neurotransmitters through electrical charges. When neurotransmitters are not in the correct proportions, this can lead to multiple neurocognitive issues including, including memory loss or even mental illnesses, such as depression, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health.
Neurons communicate via electrical signals in the brain and control almost all higher functions, including cognitive functions, movement and sensory function. When those are not functioning properly, it can cause symptoms depending on which areas of the brain are most affected. Diseases like Parkinson’s disease result from cell loss in specific parts of the brain leading to deficient neurotransmitters.
While the nervous system is much more complicated, even small chemical changes can result in miscommunication between the neurons, that can affect a variety of areas in the body.
“When the changes occur as part of the normal aging process, the results are usually not profound, but with neurocognitive disorders, multiple functions can be impaired besides memory,” said Dr. Pulicken.
When there is cell loss that is not normal, you may have significant changes in memory or cognitive abilities, (reasoning, thinking and remembering), and there is concern for a neurocognitive disorder like Alzheimer’s or other dementia diseases, he said.
Memory loss, alone, does not necessarily mean that you are going to have dementia or cognitive problems, he emphasized.
“It’s just one aspect. Memory loss can be related to multiple factors, including abnormalities in blood due to lack of certain nutrients, or other issues like inattention, anxiety or depression. There needs to be more significant changes to be classified as dementia, now known as ‘neuro-cognitive disorder.’”
A recent study published in the Journal of Translational Psychiatry stated “there is mounting evidence that aerobic exercise has a positive effect on cognitive functions in older adults.” As a measuring tool, the researchers used magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) “a non-invasive, convenient and rapid magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technique that is sensitive to metabolic changes in the brain.”
Healthy participants, 65 and older, were divided into two groups, an aerobic exercise group and a waiting control (non-exercise) group. After 12 weeks of aerobic exercise, the 29 participants in the aerobic exercise group had changes in brain metabolism indicating that exercise offers protection for the neurons and possibly slows down degeneration of the those cells.
“The study showed increase in neurotransmitter release, (chemicals that neurons use to communicate with each other) and increased blood flow to all regions that are implicated in the memory and cognitive function,” said Dr. Pulicken. “Aerobic exercise can increase the effectiveness or ability of the cells to function better and is a good preventive to delay decline.”
How much is necessary?
“You want to do exercise that stimulates the heart to pump more blood,” said Dr. Pulicken. “The common recommendation is 80-100 minutes per week, which can be a little extreme.”
He usually tells his patients to try exercising at least 10-15 minutes, three to four times a week, as tolerated. If there are cardiac risk factors or a history of cardiac issues, he recommends they check with their primary care physician or cardiologist to get approval before starting their regimen.
Any type of aerobic exercise would be beneficial, including brisk walking, swimming, stationary bikes or water aerobics, step aerobics, low impact aerobics, and dance aerobics.