Participating in physical activity like walking can have a positive effect on a person’s brain as they age, a new study finds.
Colorado State University (CSU) researchers studied people over the age of 60 to see if physical activity had a positive effect on their brains’ ability to refresh white matter, which connects cells in the brain.
They found that taking a 40-minute walk at least three times a week can help refresh the brain’s white matter and keep an older person cognitively strong.
The results of the study offer elderly people a simple way to keep their brains healthy and active deeper into their lives.
Researchers found that study members over the age of 60 had more white matter and performed better on memory tests
White matter is the tissue in the largest and deepest part of the brain, connecting parts of the brain and spinal cord with nerve fibers.
Healthy white matter is linked to better memory, better problem solving and increased cognitive skills.
For the study, published in the journal NeuroImage, the team recruited 247 participants from communities of the elderly.
Each of the participants was between 60 and 80 years old, right-handed, had at least 20/40 vision and performed little vigorous physical activity in their daily lives.
Researchers wanted to ensure that the participants still had a decent level of cognitive ability despite their limited activity and then divide them into three different groups.
One was the control group, in which participants were given a program in which they regularly stretched and performed other routines that required little physical effort.
Another group went for a 40-minute walk three times a week.
The latter group performed dance exercises three times a week, the couple’s most physically and mentally strenuous task.
Participants underwent brain scans, which examined the health and function of their white matter, and the start of the study and six months later.
Those who participated in the latter two groups showed healthier brains and bodies after six months of participation in the program.
They had clearly become physically fitter.
Their white matter also seemed renewed, the researchers found on MRI scans of their brains.
Those who were part of the running group showed the best results and also performed best on memory tests.
Researchers believe that the dance group did not perform as well as the walking group because they spent a lot of time in place and followed instructions from the teacher, unlike the walking group, which was constantly active.
The group whose activity was the fairly stagnant stretching actually saw their white matter shrink, and they performed worse on some cognitive tests.
Staying active later in life can keep people healthier and cognitively healthier
Dr Agnieszka Burzynska, co-author of the study and professor of neuroscience and human development at CSU, told The New York Times that not much research has been done on white matter.
Gray matter is often the subject of much research on the brain, and further research on white matter has only been conducted quite recently.
Many even believed that white matter was passive, but scientists now know that it affects many functions of the brain.
Until a few decades ago, some scientists didn’t even believe that the structure of the brain could change throughout life.
Previously, the scientific consensus was that after childhood, the brain would stop adapting and make new cells — instead, they would simply decay as life progressed.
Researchers aren’t sure if the results of this study will hold true for younger people, although they recommend people lead an active lifestyle to stay healthy.
The findings provide “a strong case for getting up and moving” to protect the brain’s white matter, Burzynska told The Times.