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Age-Old Question: How to Keep Your Memory in the Golden Years

By Natasha Ramirez

Exercise as You Age

In the popular psychological study frequently referred to as ”The 36 Questions,” one question often stumps people: “If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?”

It’s a difficult question to answer. Many people fear old age because of the eventual loss of both body and mind functionality. But what if you didn’t have to choose between the two? Everyone will age, but scientists agree that regular exercise can keep your mind sharp well into your twilight years.

While many people stay active for physical reasons, such as losing weight or gaining muscle, there are many mental health benefits to staying active. Almost 40 percent of gym-goers have said that they go to the gym to counterbalance the stress in their everyday lives.

In addition to stress relief, exercise can also have a tremendous impact on other parts of your mind -- particularly your memory.

Why Do We Lose Memory With Age?

Maintaining a healthy exercise routine has many physical health benefits. Over time, exercising reduces your risk of cardiovascular diseases, strengthens muscles, and prevents strokes. It’s also known to decrease anxiety and depression through the release of the hormone cortisol.

Several things happen to your brain as you age. The hippocampus, the part of your brain in charge of forming and retrieving memories, slowly deteriorates. Proteins and hormones that help repair brain cells and stimulate neural growth will also start to decline. Blood pressure issues also pop up as you get older, which can slow blood flow to the brain and lead to memory loss.

While some memory issues are a normal part of aging, regular exercise can slow some of these causes of memory loss.

Exercise Helps Short- and Long-Term Memory

One 2006 study showed that older adults who worked out have larger brain volumes than those who don’t. After six months of training, the participants who exercised increased their brain’s grey and white matter. Your brain’s grey matter holds neurons critical to your central nervous system, and your white matter regulates information processing -- both vital in memory health. The study also saw that the participants’ hippocampi, the part of the brain in charge of memory and learning, were larger in those who regularly exercise.

Another study saw memory improvements after just 10 minutes of low-intensity cycling. Not only were their hippocampi activity heightened, brain scans saw stronger connections between the hippocampus and the cerebral cortex. These parts of the brain play a large part in memory processing and are vital for both long-term and short-term memory health.

Exercise Helps Your Mental Health

The brain holds about 86 billion neurons that help tell your body what to do, think, and feel. Chemical messengers called neurotransmitters distribute those orders. These neurotransmitters help regulate body functions such as sleep cycle, mood, and memory. When your neurotransmitter levels are low, your mental health can suffer.

Studies have linked consistent exercise to an increase in neurotransmitter levels. Because people who struggle with mental health issues often show symptoms of memory fog or memory loss, these studies provide hope. Not only can a regular exercise routine help your physical health, but it can also help your mental health.

Exercise Could Help Prevent Alzheimer’s and Dementia

Over time, people expect to lose some memory. For those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, or know someone who is experiencing it, it can be an emotionally taxing disease for everyone around the patient. The World Health Organization says there are currently about 50 million people suffering from dementia worldwide today. That number could reach 82 million by 2030.

Regular exercise could help keep that number from growing. In one study that looked at the fitness levels of almost 20,000 adults, those who had high fitness levels were 36 percent less likely to develop dementia later in life. Your brain craves activity, so keeping it active through regular mental and physical stimulation could be the key to avoid chronic issues later in life.

What Exercises Should You Be Doing?

Any activity that gets your body moving and blood flowing to the brain can help prevent memory loss. Exercises such as yoga and Pilates increase blood flow to your brain and help keep your mind engaged. Even exercising as little as 20 minutes per day can help preserve memory functions.

Don’t be scared of aging. It’s a process everyone goes through. But the measures you take right now and continue throughout your life can improve your quality of life when you grow old. It’s important to start these health routines early in life and maintain them into old age. Your mind is muscle. Just like every other muscle in your body, you need to exercise it to stay strong and healthy for the years to come.

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