Hippocampal health: How physical activity can prevent dementia

The hippocampus -- the part of the brain related to memory formation -- is positively impacted by exercise, scientists say.  Photo courtesy of Life Science Databases (LSDB).
The hippocampus — the part of the brain related to memory formation — is positively impacted by exercise, scientists say. Photo courtesy of Life Science Databases (LSDB).

It’s simple – fitness fights aging.

Psychology professor Kirk Erickson of the University of Pittsburgh explained the relationship between cognitive health and exercise at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting in Chicago.

The hippocampus is the portion of the brain that is essential for memory formation, he said. Therefore, deterioration of the hippocampus predicts dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, according to Erickson.

He and his team looked at the relationship between physical fitness (in terms of maximal oxygen uptake) and hippocampal volume, and found that those who were more fit had a larger hippocampus.

They then investigated whether cardio-aerobic exercise could decrease older adults’ risk for Alzheimer’s.  After studying adults in their 60s and comparing two groups – one which walked at a brisk pace a few times a week and one which stretched a few times a week – they found three significant takeaways:

1) You don’t have to be a life-long exercise fiend – One year of aerobic exercise is enough to significantly increase hippocampal volume (and thus decrease risk of dementia).

2) Don’t overexert yourself – This exercise only needs to be moderately intense, a few times a week.

3) Better late than never – Starting an exercise regimen later in life is still helpful.

Though these findings provide hope and a potential way to fight the threat of dementia, Erickson said there are still many questions left to be answered. He wants to determine whether some forms of aerobic exercise are better at increasing hippocampal volume than others and exactly how long it takes for exercise to have a direct impact on the hippocampus.