Don’t think of our most important organ as a machine doomed to break down. Mental and physical exercise can keep the brain fit and help it recover capacities lost to disease and trauma.
Can the brain heal and preserve itself–or even improve its functioning as we get older? For some time, many scientists have tended to think of our brains as machines, most commonly as computers, destined to break down over time under the strain of age and use. However, research in neuroscience has begun to show that our brains, like our bodies in general, are far more likely to waste away from underuse than to wear down from overuse. In other words, “use it or lose it” applies to our brain functions.
As people reach middle age, exercising the brain and the body to which it is attached–keeping both active–becomes more important. It is one of the few reliable ways to offset the natural wasting process and the damaging influence of our unnaturally sedentary modern lives. It also points to new possibilities of the brain to heal itself in the face of disease and trauma. How does this form of healing work? Exercise triggers the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus. It also triggers the release of “neurotophic growth factors”–a kind of brain fertilizer, helping the brain to grow, maintain new connections and stay healthy. This may be one of the mechanisms by which exercise helps to protect the diseases such as Alzheimers.
Recent studies also have found that exercise can reduce the symptoms of Parkinson’s–a degenerative disease that causes patients to gradually lose control of their muscles. A 2014 randomized study of Parkinson’s patients at the University of Iowa found that walking three times a week for 45 minutes for six months improved patients’ mood and Parkinsonian movement symptoms. The exercise also decreased their fatique.
The basis principle of “use it or lose it” also applies to people without brain problems. Physical exercise produces new cells in the memory and mental exercise preserves and strengthens existing connections in the brain, giving a person “cognitive reserve” so we can fend off future losses and to perfect skills. So, the next time you take that bike ride, take a walk, or do a crossword puzzle, be reassured that you are doing both your BRAIN and your BODY a huge benefit!