The brain is one of the most complex and vital organs in the human body. Preserving the brain over the course of a lifetime is not only the life's work of many medical professionals, it is the goal of every human on the planet. Yet few of us truly understand what it takes to stay mentally sharp as we age.
Where Memories Live
Located deep in the center of the brain, the hippocampus is believed to be where memories live. Responsible for converting short-term memories into long-term information, it is one of the first places to show signs of damage in Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. However, damage to the hippocampus is not the only cause of age-related memory loss. The inevitable loss of hormones and proteins often prevent brain cells from growing and repairing themselves. The decreased blood flow to the brain that often accompanies a lower level of physical activity can also impair memory and lead to cognitive changes.
Can Age-Related Memory Loss Be Prevented?
The good news is that age-related memory loss is not inevitable. In fact, it is easily prevented with one simple lifestyle change. Most people know the key to staying mentally sharp is to stay mentally active. Many perform crossword puzzles, read books, attend classes, or pick up a new skill such as drawing or painting. Yet staying mentally active does not prevent damage to the hippocampus nor does it address hormonal and protein imbalances or lack of blood flow to the brain that so often impairs memory.
Exercise is the Key
Scientists are now making the connection between physical activity and mental acuity into old age. One study showed that aerobic exercise of a moderate intensity just three days a week increases the size of the memory center of the brain, leading to improvement in spatial memory. The good news is that in just six months, aerobic exercise increased the blood flow and size of the hippocampus by as much as 2 percent, effectively reversing age-related loss by one to two years. What's even better news is that people who have been physically active after the age of 60 have better focus when tasks require executive control. This means scheduling, planning, memory, and monitoring are easier in your older years when you perform regular aerobic activity.
It's Never Too Late to Start
There is no better way to stay mentally sharp than to stay physically fit. Even if you have never exercised before, it is never too late to find a fitness routine that will both preserve your joints and offer you the memory-saving benefits of activity. Just remember that the greatest impact on memory happens when exercise is moderately intense and aerobic. Walking at a brisk pace, hiking, water aerobics, dancing, or taking a group fitness class just three times a week can protect the memory center of your brain and even reverse the effects of aging over the course of your later years.