A recent study reveals that regular physical activity, even at moderate levels, is linked to increased brain volumes in areas important for memory and learning, offering a straightforward approach to enhancing brain health and reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
An international study involving clinical researchers from the Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s Brain Health Center at Providence Saint John’s Health Center has uncovered a fascinating connection between regular exercise and improved brain health.
The study’s findings are detailed in the paper recently published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. The research indicates that physical activity is associated with an increase in the size of brain regions critical for memory and learning.
Study Findings on Brain Volumes and Physical Activity
The study looked at MRI brain scans from 10,125 people done at Prenuvo imaging centers, a key collaborator in the research. It found those who regularly engaged in physical activities such as walking, running or sports had larger brain volumes in key areas. This includes the gray matter, which helps with processing information, and the white matter, which connects different brain regions, as well as the hippocampus, important for memory.
Cyrus A. Raji, M.D., the lead researcher, explains the findings in simple terms: “Our research supports earlier studies that show being physically active is good for your brain. Exercise not only lowers the risk of dementia but also helps in maintaining brain size, which is crucial as we age.”
David Merrill, M.D., study co-author and director of the PBHC noted, “We found that even moderate levels of physical activity, such as taking fewer than 4,000 steps a day, can have a positive effect on brain health. This is much less than the often-suggested 10,000 steps, making it a more achievable goal for many people.”
Study co-author Somayeh Meysami, M.D., assistant professor of neurosciences at Saint John’s Cancer Institute and the Pacific Brain Health Center noted, “Our research links regular physical activity to larger brain volumes, suggesting neuroprotective benefits. This large sample study furthers our understanding of lifestyle factors in brain health and dementia prevention.”
Broader Implications of the Study
A Lancet Study in 2020 found about a dozen modifiable risk factors increase risk for Alzheimer’s disease, including physical activity. This work builds upon previous work by this group, linking caloric burn from leisure activities to improved brain structure.
“This study demonstrates the influence of exercise on brain health imaging and when added to other studies on the role of diet, stress reduction and social connection offer the proven benefits of drug-free modifiable factors in substantially reducing Alzheimer’s disease,” said George Perry, Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
“With comprehensive imaging scans, our study underscores the interconnected synergy between the body and the brain. It echoes the knowledge of past generations, showcasing that increased physical activity is a predictor of a healthier aging brain,” said Dr. Attariwala, senior author of this paper.
This research highlights an easy way to keep our brains healthy: stay active! Whether it’s a daily walk or a favorite sport, regular physical activity can have lasting benefits for our brain health.
Reference: “Exercise-Related Physical Activity Relates to Brain Volumes in 10,125 Individuals” by Cyrus A. Raji, Somayeh Meysami, Sam Hashemi, Saurabh Garg, Nasrin Akbari, Gouda Ahmed, Yosef Gavriel Chodakiewitz, Thanh Duc Nguyen, Kellyann Niotis, David A. Merrill and Rajpaul Attariwala, 16 January 2023, Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.