Being Physically Active Improves Thinking Skills and Overall Brain Health
Brain aging is inevitable, to some extent, in all of us. But brain aging is experienced differently by everyone. It is not a uniform process. The rate of cognitive decline affects some people sooner and/or more than others.
While some studies show that a third of older people struggle with declarative memory (memories of events or facts that have been stored and are retrievable), other studies show that 20% of 70-year olds can perform equally as well on cognitive tests as 20-year olds.
General physical changes that are thought to occur during normal brain aging include:
Brain mass — shrinkage in the frontal lobe and hippocampus, the two areas involved in higher cognitive functions and the encoding of memories. This usually starts between the ages of 60 and 70.
Cortical density — the outer ridge structure of the brain thins due to declining synaptic connections. Fewer such connections also contribute to slower cognitive processing.
White matter — myelinated nerve fibers that are bundled into tracts and carry nerve signals between brain cells. The shrinkage of myelin slows processing and reduces cognitive function.
Neurotransmitter systems — researchers believe that the brain generates less chemical messengers such as dopamine, acetylcholine, serotonin, and norepinephrine with age. The decreased activity in these neurotransmitters result in cognitive decline, reduced memory, and may increase depression.
Broadly speaking, the thinking skills that start to decline earliest are those that allow us to process information quickly and to respond to situations and others. In contrast, the brain retains and continues to develop the mental skills associated with accrued knowledge throughout our lives.
Of course, as we age our brains do actually get smaller in size. This natural occurrence is called brain atrophy. It is estimated that adults in their seventies will annually lose about 0.7% of the grey matter in their brains and roughly 1% of the white matter.
Importantly, though, this shrinkage varies from individual to individual, with those who are less physically active seeing greater shrinkage than their more active counterparts. Being physically active is increasingly being linked in research studies to better thinking skills and overall brain health.
This article is partially excerpted from my award-winning book Better Decisions Better Thinking Better Outcomes: How to go from Mind Full to Mindful Leadership, available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. The book is the recipient of a Silver Award from the Nonfiction Authors Association for bringing “a comprehensive plan of action for improving life through recognizing decision-making patterns that don’t serve us well, don’t enrich our lives, and don’t bring us to our goals and dreams.”