Personal Fitness Professional - Spring 2017 - 18
THE AGING BRAIN
Effective programming for
improving cognitive function
ementia is one of, if not the
greatest concern among older adults, and with the prevalence of Alzheimer's disease
on the rise, it is a valid one. It
is anticipated that the worldwide cases of Alzheimer's disease will increase from 46.8 million
in 2015 to 131.5 million in 2050 (World Alzheimer's Report 2015). Most, if not all, older adults
would rather die earlier than live an extra 5-10
years unable to recognize their loved ones and
having to be taken care of. This fear has helped
create a global business sector centered on
"brain training" apps, software, games... even
Sudoku and crossword puzzles. But do they
work? And can exercise be used as an effective
intervention to improve cognitive function?
The research overwhelmingly suggests that
cognitive function in old age is primarily due to
lifestyle factors rather than the aging process.
Nutrition, stress, environment, physical activity,
relationships and other factors have an impact
on cognition as we get older. Risk factors for
cognitive decline include age, genetics, insulin resistance/diabetes mellitus, hypertension, obesity, smoking and amyloid plaques
(Baumgart et al 2016). Although some individ-
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Dr. Cody Sipe
uals will suffer from memory loss or even develop dementia, these are not normal parts of
the aging process as many older adults remain
mentally sharp throughout their whole life.
Most studies assessing the effects of cognitive task training have used computerized
brain training software (games). The data indicates that computerized cognitive training
improves certain cognitive domains a small to
moderate degree with no significant effects in
executive functions. It is also clear that only
the trained cognitive process improves with
no transfer effects, meaning that other related
cognitive processes do not improve (Ballesteros et al 2015). The largest cognitive study
to date, the ACTIVE study, assigned people to
one of three cognitive training groups: memory; speed of process; or reasoning. In all three
groups the skill that was trained significantly
improved with no transfer to untrained functions or to everyday activities.
Exercise has been identified as one of the
best ways to improve cognitive function and is
probably better than playing any of the brain
games that have become so popular. Several
recent systematic reviews (Bamidis et al 2014;
Ballesteros et al 2015; Hotting et al 2013; Szu-
hany et al 2015) have investigated the relationship of exercise to cognition and have made
the following conclusions:
} Cardiovascular and resistance exercise improve executive function the most (strategic
planning, mental flexibility, inhibitory control, problem solving and working memory).
} Cardiovascular exercise of sufficient intensity (60-75% max heart rate) and frequency
can significantly elevate brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).
} Low BDNF levels are linked to
Alzheimer's disease, accelerated aging, obesity and depression.
} Resistance exercise stimulates the production of Immuno-Globulin Factor 1 (IGF1).
} Cardiovascular and resistance exercise
have a synergistic effect on brain function likely due to stimulating the brain via
different pathways (BDNF and IGF1) and
maximizing neurogenesis, synaptogenesis
} Brain games can improve the functions of the
brain used during training, but there is no carryover effect to other cognitive functions.
} The "sweet spot" where the best outcomes occur seems to be activities that