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Mental Muscle ; Research Shows Regular Exercise Can Boost Brain Power -- And Keep Alzheimer's in Check

Buffalo News


We all know the benefits of exercise -- health, body image, athletic ability, endurance. But new research links physical activity to expanded brain power.

Exercise, in other words, may make you smarter.

"Physical activity helps with focus, and improves concentration and scoring on standardized testing. Results can happen in minutes. The brain will respond to oxidative stresses of exercise by growing more blood vessels and by altering the neurochemistry and chemical markers that support brain function," said James Velasquez, assistant professor in the Exercise and Sports Studies program at D'Youville College.

Memory, too, can benefit from physical exercise, research suggests. Regular exercise can boost the brain for the long term, increasing volume in the frontal lobes and keeping Alzheimer's disease at bay.

Short-term effects -- the ability and speed of thought processing -- occur immediately and may last up to two hours, studies conclude. Long-term benefits may take months to surface, according to one medical expert.

"In four months, you can reduce your vascular risk," said Dr. Linda Hershey, chief of neurology at the Buffalo Veterans Affairs Medical Center. "We know that dementia increases if you have diabetes, hypertension, obesity. It doesn't take extreme exercise. Walk around the block for 30 minutes four times a week. It's never too late to start. If you're 60 years old, it's still beneficial to get out there and get moving."

Brain power

By triggering an immediate increase of oxygen to the brain, exercise helps remove toxins and reawakens your metabolism immediately, according to Dan Mitchell, a certified personal trainer who has developed exercise programs to facilitate cognitive growth. Mitchell's 30-day program "Your Health in Motion" incorporates a DVD, manual and interactive Web site.

"Test results are higher within two hours after exercise," said Mitchell, owner of Soap Box fitness on Franklin. "After those two hours, test scores fall back to pre-exercise levels."

A research team from the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois determined that aerobic exercise increases both mental acuity and the speed of thought processing. Brisk walking, it was found, also adds to the volume of brain tissue.

The hippocampus, part of the body's limbic system located at the top of the brain stem, is a critical component in the learning and memory processes, according to Velasquez, who teaches exercise physiology at D'Youville.

"As a result of increased blood flow, and the increased metabolic activity that exercise provides, the hippocampus adapts," Velasquez said. "The hippocampus is also sensitive to dopamine, serotonin and BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). In the science community, BDNF is called 'miracle grow' for the brain. It helps the brain develop new neuroconnections."

Only recently has attention been paid to the brain's ability to grow, Velasquez said.

"For years people have thought the nervous system and the brain were these static things once we reached full maturity," Velasquez pointed out. "The brain has the ability to grow, too. Neuroplasticity -- the brain changes and molds."

Locally, some elementary schools have become innovative in their use of physical activity, noted Velasquez, whose children start their school day at Ellicott Elementary in Orchard Park with morning announcements that feature calisthenics.

"It prepares them for the day and sort of wakes them up," said Velasquez. "Many schools use that to help meet their mandatory physical education time. It helps with focus and improves concentration."

>Memory function

As you grow older, you'll probably lose friends, hair, maybe a tooth or two, but there's one function lost in the aging process that befuddles the best of us: Memory.

"People wonder about their memories," said Leilani Pelletier, executive director of the Alzheimer's Association, Western New York Chapter. "One of the most frequent questions we get is: Is memory lapse normal?"

Memory lapse -- misplacing keys or "losing" your parked car -- crosses the line to memory loss when help is required to carry out your daily routine, according to Pelletier.

"A memory lapse is if you have forgotten something," she said. "You know you went to the basement for something, but you can't remember what. Or you know your keys are in the house somewhere because you remember unlocking the door. That's a lapse. Eventually you'll get it back, when someone cues you.

"In memory loss, the memory is gone and is not going to come back," Pelletier explained. "Memory lapses are common. Memory loss is not. It's not normal to lose a memory entirely. That means you need to look into it. Not all memory loss is Alzheimer's related. It can be caused by [vitamin] B12 deficiency, thyroid problems, depression."

A good way to distinguish between absent-mindedness and permanent loss? Misplacing keys is one thing, but looking at your keys and wondering what they are used for is another.

"What is good for your heart is good for your brain," said Pelletier. "Exercise does help your cerebral vascularity. It's not just memory but spatial distance, too."

>Cerebral swimming

Retired English professor Vic Doyno swims daily at the University at Buffalo, where he introduced a generation of students to the beauty of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Mark Twain. Doyno was diagnosed with early Alzheimer's six years ago. But 20 laps in the UB pool each day help clear his mind of the fogginess that marks the disease, he said.

"I feel fresher when I finish swimming," said Doyno. "It's a form of concentration. I feel younger than 73, or I feel younger than I thought 73 would feel."

"There's nothing good about Alzheimer's, but you do the best you can," he said during a recent visit to the Alzheimer's Association's office in Williamsville. "I was quite surprised, somewhat angry and disappointed. To my knowledge, neither my mom nor my dad had Alzheimer's. They were peculiar, but they didn't have Alzheimer's."

This year, it is estimated 5.3 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's, including 5.1 million people age 65 and over and 200,000 people under age 65 with younger-onset Alzheimer's.

Doyno believes the physiological benefit derived from swimming has helped fend off symptoms that signal disease progression.

>Puzzle therapy

Hershey, who treats veterans suffering from dementia, worries about her own brain health. She realizes that cell loss is part of normal brain function, and that aging spurs that loss. That's why she times herself daily at sudoku puzzles.

"Some days it takes forever to do those puzzles, and I worry and fret about it," Hershey said. "When those days come, I need to just relax. I know that I have too much on my mind. I need to spend more time on my Schwinn bicycle.

"There's pruning going on all the time in the brain," Hershey said. "We just have to make sure we're constantly making new connections. When you exercise, you make new connections, new motor memories."

e-mail: -ST_ART- Caption: Photos by Getty Images and Buffalo News; photo illustration by Buffalo News Charles Lewis/Buffalo News "I feel fresher when I finish swimming. It?s a form of concentration. I feel younger than 73, or I feel younger than I thought 73 would feel." - Vic Doyno, retired English professor Bill Wippert/Buffalo News James Velasquez, D'Youville College professor, recognizes the role of exercise in boosting brain power. Here he observes Julie Boehly, foreground, and Kaitlynn Trzaska in the student fitness center on Porter Avenue.

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