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Exercising the Body and Brain Can Slow Aging’s Cognitive Decline

15 June “Neuroscience and Society” panel discussion on aging and cognition at AAAS’ headquarters
From left, Sevil Yasar and Marilyn S. Albert, both of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and Marie A. Bernard of the National Institute on Aging during a 15 June “Neuroscience and Society” panel discussion on aging and cognition at AAAS’ headquarters. | Stephen Waldron/AAAS

Maintaining a healthy diet and following a regular regimen of physical and mental exercise can delay age-related cognitive decline, neuroscience experts said during a panel discussion 15 June at AAAS headquarters.

Marie S. Bernard, deputy director of the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health, said that learning more about the impact of age on cognition is a high priority for researchers.

“We’re aware that the public and the scientific community are really hungry for some direction as to what you can do to avoid mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease,” Bernard said during the presentation.

Bernard was joined by Marilyn S. Albert, director of the Division of Cognitive Neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and Sevil Yasar, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

The event was part of the “Neuroscience and Society” presentation series, which seeks to inform and educate the public on brain-related issues. The event was hosted by AAAS and the Dana Foundation, a private philanthropic organization that promotes brain research and related educational initiatives.

Mark Frankel, director of AAAS’ Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program, moderated the discussion. He said the series allows people to learn about scientific advances from experts in the field of science that is generating considerable public attention.

“The purpose of this series should be to introduce current and emerging science related to the brain, and its implications, to an interested public,” Frankel said.

The three speakers, who also participated in a panel discussion, outlined several factors that can affect an aging person’s mental sharpness, but placed particular significance on physical, mental and social wellbeing.

Bernard said physical exercise, particularly aerobic, can be highly beneficial to mental function.  A 1999 study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that participants who walked regularly performed better on a cognitive test than those who limited their exercise routines to stretching and toning workouts.

The researchers agreed that regardless of the type of exercise, staying active is essential to improving cognitive function.

“What I tell people is that it’s important for them to do something they love,” Albert said, “because it means they’ll maintain it.”

Yasar emphasized that healthy eating is also important for preserving mental sharpness late in life. She referred to a 2015 study in which participants followed a traditional Mediterranean diet that included olive oil and fresh vegetables. The participants performed better on cognitive tests than the control group that maintained their usual diet.

Mental stimulation can also be effective in delaying cognitive decline. Activities like reading and completing crossword puzzles can keep an aging brain sharp.

Bernard explained that different types of activities have varying levels of efficacy. One study tested a group which made quilts, compared to participants who practiced photography.

Researchers found that the group learning about photography showed greater cognitive function than those who quilted. Bernard said the reasons for the disparity are not yet known, but speculated that members of the quilting group may have been experienced in the activity, diminishing the challenge and making it less mentally stimulating.

Yasar said learning a foreign language, while easier at a young age, can be a good way for people to sharpen their minds as they grow old.

“Even when you’re 60 or 70, any new cognitive activity you take up can only help you,” Yasar said.

The third component of maintaining cognitive function is socialization. This is an area of research that scientists are eager to focus on, Albert said. Fewer studies have been conducted on the subject of socialization than other facets of aging, but researchers still have been able to draw some conclusions.

“People who are socially isolated are much more likely to have cognitive decline,” Albert said. “Feelings of loneliness, likely related to depression, have an impact on cognition.”

The speakers agreed that age-related cognitive impairment is a growing area of research. Bernard encouraged anyone interested in getting involved in the field to look into the National Institute of Health’s various trials, which require older people with healthy cognitive function to serve in control groups.

Albert said that collaboration is an important part of researchers’ efforts, and emphasized the urgency to develop treatments that can slow the effect of aging on the human brain.

“We all feel that these are really big problems that have to be solved,” Albert said. “And we have to work together to solve them as quickly as we can.”

[Associated image: Stephen Waldron/AAAS]