Brain volume is a true marker of brain ageing. Unfortunately, the birth of new brain cells slows as we age, and this causes our brains to shrink. Researchers measuring the size of the hippocampus (the brain's major memory centre and one of the primary brain areas that declines first in dementia or Alzheimer's disease), reveal a clear connection between declining cognitive function and the shrinkage of the hippocampus.
So, it seems, that size does indeed matter when it comes to matters of the hippocampus and unravelling the modifiable factors that contribute to brain ageing and shrinkage is an important factor towards keeping our brains, cognitive functions and memory in tip top shape, so we can enjoy life to the fullest every single day we're alive.
Although brain shrinkage has been tied to old age in the past and accepted as a natural part of the ageing process, exciting new research is challenging this worn-out old notion along with compelling evidence that proves otherwise.
And, not surprisingly, physical exercise, is taking centre stage. Only proper exercise is empowered to produce changes that strengthen and renew the body and the brain, especially in areas directly associated with memory and learning.
In other words, proper exercise is the primary key towards building a brain that not only resists shrinkage but increases cognitive abilities by promoting neurogenesis – the brain's ability to adapt and grow new brain cells.
BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) is the chemical that stimulates the growth and proliferation of new brain cells, especially in the hippocampus and guess what? Exercise produces BDNF! So, the more you exercise, the more BDNF is produced, resulting in the production of new brain cells.
The fact that physical exercise and brain health are so closely related is not new information. This fact has been known by scientists for years and ongoing research continues to support these findings.
Just as other muscles require stimulation to stay healthy and strong, brain cells need to be worked to stimulate them to grow and maintain strength as well. We do that with proper exercise shunting blood, elevating oxygen levels and growth factors to the brain and boosting the production of important nerve-protecting compounds; reducing damaging plaques in the brain and promoting survival and development of neurons – a process known as neurogenesis or neuroplasticity.
The cumulative effects of this process, over time, slows down and impedes brain ageing.
Remember, what we do now will honour or haunt us in our future. Ongoing studies link low levels of physical fitness in middle age to lower brain tissue volume 20 years later. But, engaging in consistent proper exercise is empowered to slow brain ageing by as much as 10 years.
That means there's no time like now to get fit. Our everyday habits, and how we utilise our daily energy output, determines whether we contribute to our mental and physical health or subtract from it. So, ultimately, for the most part, the healthy longevity of our mental state/brains, just like our bodies, is resting in our hands.
Procrastinating another day will only further contribute to the decline of our mental and physical health – producing negative effects we'll feel and suffer from decades later.
Lucky for us, improving and sharpening our cognitive abilities and strengthening our memories (like strengthening our bodies) is as close as our neighbourhood gym or challenging, workout routine.
Exercise does a body good, and what's good for the body is good for the brain. Optimising health and longevity, for body and brain, is all about staying in motion.
Sitting kills, but activity heals. Those ready to kick-start their production of BDNF should strive for a comprehensive workout routine that includes resistance training two to three times weekly along with one to two high-intensity interval exercise sessions (HIIT).
What works wonders for the body will work wonders for the brain because they operate as one unit, not in isolation. What we do with our body does and will affect our mental faculties now and in the future.
Proper, challenging exercise improves mood, memory, attention, creativity and learning while reducing depression (many times more effective than antidepressants and certainly more natural), age-related decline and the risk of dementia.
So, if a healthy, fit and active, energy driven body is not enough to motivate you to proper exercise, then possibly enjoying strong cognitive skills and a healthy memory will?
• Carolyn Hansen is co-owner of Anytime Fitness.