Finding the Fountain of Youth

Reverse brain aging and improve memory with...

Posted Sep 19, 2011

The mythical Fountain of Youth: Drinking from it is supposed to stop aging and restore youthfulness. Legend has it that Ponce de León went searching for it in the early 1500s, and discovered Florida in the process. In modern times, the vision of the cure-all fountain has been replaced by the wish for medications that can stop or reverse aspects of the aging process. And of symptoms of aging, memory loss and dementia concerns are particularly frightening. 

Normal aging does take its toll on memory, making it harder to remember names, telephone numbers, directions, as well as recalling older memories ("What do you mean I already saw that movie"). This declining memory can be seen in brain imaging studies, in part by decreases in a brain region crucial for memory – the hippocampus. Among the aged, it is not unusual to see shrinkage in this brain region in the range of 1% to 2% per year. Clearly, a Fountain of Youth elixir is needed to stop or reverse this process.

It appears that this elixir is now available. A recent study published in the February 15th, 2011, issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (USA) documented an intervention that not only can slow the loss of hippocampal volume and memory, but appears to reverse the effect – creating changes as if your brain was being made younger. What is this dramatic new treatment?  None other than our old friend exercise. That is, a regular program of moderate exercise can have dramatic effects on both memory and the hippocampus.

In the study, 120 aged (between the ages of 55 and 80) adults were randomly assigned to an aerobic exercise program or to a program of stretching. The exercise program was walking, simple walking, for 40 minutes, 3 days a week. But, the exercise intensity did not start at this level.  Participants started with just 10 minutes of walking, then increased their walking in 5 minute increments until the full dose of 40 minutes of walking was reached at the 7th week of participation. Also in keeping with good exercise practice, all walking sessions started and ended with five minutes of stretching. The researchers found that memory performance increased over time, and was linked to the degree of fitness. Accompanying this improvement, the hippocampus increased an average 2% in size. In terms of the aging process, this growth represents a reversal of one to two years of aging. And what happened in the stretching only group? Their brain continued to show the usual aging effects: further loss in hippocampus size.

With all the hope of finding an antidote to the cognitive consequences of aging, if exercise was a pill, it would be the next blockbuster. But it isn't a pill, and it takes more effort than swallowing a pill. Yet it has more payoffs as well. As you may know from reading our book or this blog, exercise offers tremendous mood benefits, with improvement in mood within minutes of finishing an exercise session. Exercise also has other life-giving effects, including a longer life span and better health during the time you have. So, given all the evidence on the brain, memory, mood, and health benefits of regular exercise, if you are searching for a fountain of youth, it is best to attend to the sweat from your own brow.

Copyright Michael Otto

Drs. Michael Otto and Jasper Smits are authors of Exercise for Mood and Anxiety Disorders: Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well Being.