Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Exercising the Brain

By Tim Hannan

Can physical activity in later life slow the rate of cerebral atrophy?

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In 65 BCE, the Roman orator Marcus Cicero opined: “It is exercise alone that supports the spirits, and keeps the mind in vigour”. These days, the benefits of physical activity for general health, mood and cognitive functioning are well recognised – even if a consequence of the Ashes tour is that the attention many of us pay to physical activity at this time of year is more vicarious than actual.

However, a recent study offers a new incentive to challenge such sedentary preferences by proposing that physical activity may prevent deterioration in the ageing brain, and that the benefits derived from activity exceed those that accrue from engaging in complex mental activities.

Normal ageing has long been associated with the gradual shrinkage or atrophy of the brain, whether measured by overall volume, the volume of the gray matter of the cortex or the white matter of its connecting neural fibres. Some studies have found a decline of up to 10–15% of brain size, with the degree of atrophy associated with age-related decline in cognitive functioning and the onset of dementia. While found in the brains of all older individuals, atrophy is markedly reduced in those who are physically healthy.

Recently, Alan Gow and colleagues from the University of Edinburgh investigated whether engagement in regular physical activity was associated with the degree of atrophy...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.