Your Health

Staying Active: How exercise counters cognitive decline

Research and clinical studies from several disciplines of science have recently revealed that increased physical activity reduces aging effects that slow down the brain as well as mobility.

So how does physical fitness add up to 10 years of a more active lifestyle and 36 percent more brain efficiency to seniors’ quality of life?

Our brains have lifelong “brain elasticity,” which means they have the ability to repair broken connections and create new ones. Everyone experiences aging effects, but there are simple ways to postpone and prevent some symptoms of cognitive decline.

Cognitive decline is evident in symptoms such as failing memory, being easily distracted from activities, forgetting what you were doing after being interrupted or losing your focus in the middle of a conversation.

Because healthy brain function relies on good nutrition and the presence of important elements in the brain, these symptoms can happen to anyone at any age.

The impact of cognitive decline becomes more noticeable with age as we slow down physically, eat less nutritious foods and our body functions slow down.

Cognitive impairment is not the same as cognitive decline. Impairment refers to actual brain damage due to drug use, disease or head injury. A patient with cognitive impairment also can improve his or her brain’s broken connections and create new ones in many cases. People experiencing common causes of cognitive decline show improvement in brain function during studies through rigorous exercise.


In the same way that exercise can improve age-related symptoms such as stiff joints, failing eyesight, poor appetite, heart-related illness, decreased lung function, diabetes symptoms and poor digestion, it also can improve brain function, memory and focus.

Even walking at a slow pace and other low-level exercise can stimulate more oxygen to the brain and better delivery of nutrients (and critical chemical components) for normal brain function.

Multiple studies related to cognitive decline by the National Institutes of Health, the Northern Manhattan Study and Medicine Science in Sports and Exercise reveal positive results for moderate to vigorous exercise, offering up to 36 percent cognitive improvement and, in most cases, delaying serious cognitive decline for 10 years.

Many people take supplements and vitamins for higher brain function. When aging requires taking daily medications, developing a good physical fitness regime can promote better cognitive ability without the danger of negative medication interactions or additional symptoms.

Exercise returns needed nutrients, oxygen and certain brain elements such as enzymes and repair components, fighting free radicals and toxins, which impair brain function. Exercise also improves the sleep cycle and helps boost emotional health, which can keep us actively interacting socially.

One-third of the brain is made up of blood vessels. A key to staying young is to keep those vessels healthy, maintaining proper blood flow. It is never too late for sedentary adults to improve the brain’s blood flow through exercise. Even moderate exercising increases the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for retrieving memories, storing new memories and increasing the brain’s processing speed.


A nutritious diet should focus on brain-healthy foods such as leafy green vegetables, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids including fish, legumes, nuts and grains, all components for brain function that relieves stress and increases creative thinking. These nutrients are essential for eliminating free radicals, molecules and atoms that cause cellular damage.


A reduction in your social life and increased isolation may be a component of dementia.

The more social you are and the more active your brain, the longer you will maintain a healthy, high-functioning brain.

Adding new experiences in a social environment creates new tests for your brain, requiring new connections to grow within your brain. Research shows that regular social involvement while learning a new skill can greatly improve normal brain functions such as memory, stress reduction and maintaining emotional stability.

Your brain is even more responsive than your muscles when you challenge it to function at a higher level. The “use it or lose it” principle with muscle tone in exercise is even more applicable in brain health and performance for all age groups. Seniors do have control over improving their mental acuity and fitness through diet, exercise and socialization.


Kim Gladfelter is owner, physical therapist and Pilates instructor at PhysioFit Physical Therapy and Wellness, 1000 Fremont Ave., Los Altos. For more information, call 887-6046 or visit

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