How exercise can boost brain power

In this Q&A published by UBC Public Affairs, Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health researcher Dr. Teresa Liu-Ambrose answers questions about her work on aging, mobility and the brain.

How does physical activity benefit cognitive function?

There’s increasing evidence, including our own research, that shows some physical exercises can improve memory and executive functions in older adults. Executive functions include problem-solving and decision-making. These functions are necessary for independent living and are affected by conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementias.

But not all exercise is created equal when it comes to warding off dementia?

That’s correct. In 2012, we conducted the world’s first randomized controlled trial to compare the efficacy of cardio exercise and weight training on cognitive functions in women who were beginning to show signs of early dementia. We found that only participants who did weight training showed significant improvements in both memory and executive functions. This is in contrast to earlier studies on healthy participants that showed cardio exercises to be beneficial. When we performed neuroimaging, we also observed areas of the brain responsible for memory and executive functions showing more neural activity after weight training.

What does this mean for seniors and the rest of society?

The take-home message is that even if you are beginning to see signs of cognitive impairment, the brain is still capable of rebounding with the right kind of physical activity. Weight training, even as little as once or twice a week, can minimize the rate of cognitive decline and change the disease course.

Our recent study also shows that older adults who do cardio exercise and weight training also incurred fewer health care resources, such as doctor visits and lab tests, compared to those on a balance and toning program alone (yoga and pilates). So choosing the right exercise has implications for both the overall health of seniors and for managing health care costs.

Teresa Liu-Ambrose is an associate professor in UBC’s Dept. of Physical Therapy and research director of the Vancouver General Hospital Falls Prevention Clinic. She holds the Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity, Mobility, and Cognitive Neuroscience and leads UBC’s Aging, Mobility, and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory.

Related links: New York Times blog