Expert Commentary

Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory

2010 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on the potential cognitive benefits of regular aerobic exercise.

Medical authorities have long suggested that exercise is an essential part of leading a healthy life. Regular physical activity has been shown to not only improve fitness for those of all ages, but also reduce the incidence of many diseases.

While the physical benefits of exercise are well understood, research published in 2010 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Exercise Training Increases Size of Hippocampus and Improves Memory,” indicates that it can provide significant cognitive benefits as well.

Researchers at the University of Illinois and other institutions conducted a year-long study with 120 older adults, most of whom were in their 60s. Half of the subjects were randomly assigned to an aerobic exercise treatment group, while the remainder participated in a program of regular stretching and resistance training. The subjects were given blood tests, MRI scans and spatial memory tests before and after the study, published in 2011.

The findings include:

  • Subjects in the aerobic exercise group increased average hippocampus volume in the left and right hemispheres by 2.12% and 1.97%, respectively, an average of just over 2%.
  • Over the same one-year interval, the control group that participated in non-aerobic stretching exercises displayed a 1.40% and 1.43% decline.
  • Within the control group, baseline fitness level was a determining factor in minimizing overall hippocampal volume loss.
  • An increase in hippocampal volume is directly correlated with improvements in memory.

The study indicates that aerobic exercise is a simple and cost-effective intervention that can help to reverse the hippocampal volume loss among the nation’s older adult population.

A related study published in The Journals of Gerontology, “Psychomotor Speed and Functional Brain MRI 2 Years After Completing a Physical Activity Treatment,” showed that moderate exercise can help preserve cognitive skills.

Tags: aging, exercise, cognition

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