Bicycle Your Way to Better Brain Health

Sharpen your mind while you pedal your feet

Posted Jul 10, 2012

Exercise is one of the best – and cheapest- anti-aging antidotes. I’m willing to guess that you already knew that, even if you are a little shaky on the how’s and why’s. But you may not have realized that all forms of exercise are not equally effective, even when the exercise really revs up your heart and your muscles. It turns out that although everyone benefits from a lifestyle that includes regular workouts, it’s the bicyclists who seem to garner the most rewards from their efforts, including the benefits of greater road safety.

Driving accidents are a serious concern that people face as they get older but not because they are poor drivers. Despite the widespread belief that older drivers are unsafe, many actually monitor their own driving patterns so that they avoid situations that place them at greatest risk (NHTSA, 2010). Compared to young adults, older drivers are less likely to drive fast, at night, or when weather conditions are poor.  More young adults are involved in accidents that involve distracted driving or driving under the influence. The difficulties that older drivers face tend to involve integrating information from rapidly changing situations when they must divide their attention among multiple sources of input. As a result, in countries where cars travel in the right lane, older drivers are more likely to have an accident while making a left-hand turn (Braitman et al., 2006).

People can be poor drivers at all ages, but accidents due to information overload are more likely to occur in older adults with cognitive deficits. Researchers who compare different age drivers use a variety of laboratory tasks to understand what exactly the problems are that older adults face. A task known as visual search is particularly well-suited to measuring the cognitive skills you need to be a good driver.  These skills include attention (being able to detect a stimulus) and so-called “executive function”- being able to decide what to pay attention to and what to ignore.

Many studies of attention and aging conducted over the past few decades show that people tend to get slower on complex visual search tasks as they get older, even starting as early as the 40s or 50s.  Not content simply to show that people get slower with age, researchers now are attempting to establish ways to slow the slowing process.  The hot new area of aging research examines cognitive “plasticity”- the notion that aging doesn’t have to mean loss of abilities. Some of the interventions to promote plasticity include physical activity, computer games, and participation in music and dance. The results of studies on cognitive intervention and aging are clear: being physically active keeps you mentally active. Researchers agree that cognitive plasticity in older adults isn't jsut possible- it's very doable.

The latest in these studies uses an intriguing approach to show how physical exercise can benefit the brain—specifically the kinds of attention and decisions required in driving.   In a first-of-its kind study, Italian researcher Caterina Pesce and her associates ()2011) at the University of Rome took on the question of whether endurance bicyclists in their 60s and 70s would perform better on a visual search task while they were actually cycling.  Other studies on exercise and mental acuity in older adults have compared performance in general, not while participants were actually exercising at the time. By seeing how the cyclists did while on their bikes, Pesce and her team could find out how they would react to quickly-changing stimuli while on the road.

You might wonder whether it’s just exercise or bicycling specifically that would lead to any positive effects on attention in the older cyclists. In fact, the research team compared endurance cyclists with other endurance athletes to control for just such a possibility. They also compared both groups to age-matched sedentary individuals.  The task required that the participants scan a visual array that required them to detect complex targets, testing both their response time and their executive functions.

To no one’s surprise, both the endurance cyclists and athletes out-performed the sedentary individuals on the visual search task.  Both groups of exercisers were about equal in their response times. They differed, however, in their ability to react quickly in one particular condition that closely simulated the cognitive demands of riding out on the open road.  If you’ve ever ridden a bicycle in traffic, you know that you have to be on the lookout for cars, pedestrians, potholes, and any obstacles in the road. You have to look everywhere around you but then quickly focus on what’s right in front of you, or you’ll fall or crash into something.  It was on this type of task that the cyclists showed their true advantage. They beat even their physically fit age peers who exercised in ways other than on a bicycle, surpassing them in speed and accuracy of their decisions.

In general, we can add this study to our list of experiments demonstrating the existence of cognitive plasticity in later life. Exercising when you’re young is the physical and psychological equivalent of starting a 401K. Get on that bike now, and you’ll be investing in a lifetime of better health, fewer cognitive losses, and even fewer road accidents.  For people who value having an independent lifestyle for as long as possible, it’s hard to imagine a better formula for long-term success.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012

References:

Braitman, K. A., Kirley, B. B., Chaudhary, N. K., & Ferguson, S. A. (2006). Factors leading to older drivers’ intersection crashes, from http://www.iihs.org/research/topics/pdf/older_drivers.pdf 

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (2010). Fatality analysis reporting system encyclopedia, from http://www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/QueryTool/QuerySection/Report.aspx

Pesce, C., Cereatti, L., Forte, R., Crova, C., & Casella, R. (2011). Acute and Chronic Exercise Effects on Attentional Control in Older Road Cyclists. Gerontology, 57(2), 121-128. doi:10.1159/000314685