Healthy aging helps combat Alzheimer's disease

Though retirement is ostensibly a time for people to find rest after a long career, many people have been bucking this trend by using their free time to get out and get active. Whether they take up jogging, join a gym or simply enjoy a leisurely walk every day, seniors who engage in regular exercise tend to lead healthier and more fulfilling lives. In addition to the obvious physical benefits that come from this commitment to healthy aging, a new study is showing that this increased physical activity may actually keep one's brain healthy as well.

A study recently presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America is claiming that a healthy lifestyle for seniors could help preserve the integrity of gray matter in the brains of older adults - a phenomenon that could severely reduce the effects of such disorders as dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Researchers from the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) observed the brain activity of more than 870 adults around 78 years in age as part of a multistate Cardiovascular Health Study. Patients, whose mental condition ranged from typical to onset Alzheimer's, were grouped based on several levels of activity, including individuals who engaged in recreational sports, gardening and yard work, bicycling and riding a stationary bicycle.

The subjects were observed using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans as well as voxel-based morphometry, which allowed researchers to accurately map the relationship between energy output and gray matter volume.

"Gray matter volume is a key marker of brain health," said Dr. Cyrus Raji, radiology resident at UCLA and lead author of the study. "Larger gray matter volume means a healthier brain. Shrinking volume is seen in Alzheimer's disease."

Research found that greater caloric expenditure experienced during periods of heightened activity bears a strong connection to larger gray matter volumes in several areas of the brain that control cognition and higher order cognitive processes. Dr. Raji noted particular success as it pertained to aerobic physical activity, as these exercises have been shown to improve cerebral blood flow and strengthen neuronal connections in the brain.

Though the study is not entirely conclusive, researchers believe that their findings paint a strong picture of the important role that healthy aging can play in seniors' lives.

"Additional work needs to be done," said Dr. Raji. "However, our initial results show that brain aging can be alleviated through an active lifestyle."