New research emphasizes what has generally been accepted for a long time – keeping the brain active and well tuned is best achieved by a combination of both intellectual stimulation and physical exercise.
The aging mind and body has a certain amount of inevitable decline. The only certainty in life remains change, and change we must. How we change and how much we can slow our decline or renew our mental and physical capacity is the challenge we all confront.
Extensive experience and research has demonstrated the advantages of regular exercise and continuing mental stimulation throughout a lifetime. Anecdotal experiences abound of recovery from illness, injury and staving off the effects of aging.
Although the myriad of brain function remains mostly a mystery, we are bit by bit getting glimpses into how it works, grows and recovers.
After brain injury from trauma or stroke, we have long engaged the benefits of providing stimulating intellectual challenges to advance the recovery process. This has also included regular exercise. Clearly, exercise has increased the recovery rate after brain injury, as long as it’s included appropriately for an individual’s level of conditioning.
Recent studies in both animals and humans provide some small insight as to why and how this works. Exercise appears to stimulate growth of new brain cells and even helps them integrate with existing parts of the brain to improve brain function. The entire mechanism remains unclear.
Through high-tech scans of the brain and sophisticated tests that determine increased levels of hormones known to encourage growth and regeneration of brain cells, we are able to measure a response in healthy people and animals when they exercise regularly.
A distinct difference was seen in brain structure and ability to function at a higher intellectual level in those who exercise and those who do not. Even when gender, diet and other variables were considered, exercise created increased brain activity and increased levels of chemical messengers that influence the creation of new brain cells.
A more recent finding indicates that the brain is able to grow new brain cells. Moreover, the new cells have to be trained to work in concert with cells that are already functioning and sometimes even specialized.
How this all happens remains a somewhat mysterious process. The latest research confirms neurogenesis (process by which new nerve cells are generated) and that physical exercise enhances the process and integration of new brain cells.
Some have referred to the brain as the muscle between your ears. The message is clear even though we have yet to illuminate all the intricacies of this elegant computer. Regular exercise and continued intellectual challenges keep the mind and body fresh and in good condition.
Dr. Bruce Kaler
Dr. Bruce Kaler is a Medical Director in Washington for U.S. HealthWorks