The Role of Exercise in Aging and Memory

I recently ran into Ken, an acquaintance whom I hadn’t seen in over six months. While I was embarrassed that I didn’t immediately recall his name, it became clear that he didn’t recall mine either. We both did the normal “Hey there” that’s popular in this situation.

Let’s face it: we’ve all had this happen to us. A normal part of aging is not being able to immediately recall some information that’s not part of our daily life. The acronym that most of us have heard describing this is “CRS,” or can’t remember stuff.

We have about 100 billion neurons, or cells, in our brains. Each has long, branching extensions that enable individual neurons to form specialized connections with others. The points of connections are synapses; these are chemical pulses released by one and detected by another neuron. We have 100 trillion synapses that provide the cellular basis of memories, thoughts, sensations, emotions, movements and skills.

The more we think about something or exercise a certain skill, the stronger the synapses for that activity. Conversely, if we don’t do it, the synapses decrease or even disappear. The latter happened to me when I didn’t play tennis for years; the required hand-eye coordination wasn’t there anymore.

There’s a very small structure in the center of our brains called the hippocampus. It’s the key to the kingdom for learning and memory. If it went away, we’d be able to recall old memories but we wouldn’t be able to generate new ones. The bad news is that the hippocampus shrinks as part of normal aging, which explains why I couldn’t immediately remember Ken’s name.

Now for the good news: one of the areas in the brain that continues to form new neurons and make new connections is in the hippocampus. The best way to generate new neurons and make new connections in our brains is to exercise. There’s lots of research over the past decade to back up this statement.

Dr. Ronald Petersen is Director of the Alzheimer’s Research Center at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. He said, “Regular exercise is probably the best means we have for preventing Alzheimer’s today, better than medications, better than intellectual activity, better than supplements and diet.”

If you have trouble remembering someone’s name, instead of thinking hard, go get some exercise. I remembered Ken’s name when I was walking my golf course an hour later.

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2 Responses to The Role of Exercise in Aging and Memory

  1. Carole Steffel says:

    Hey Harry – I love thinking that I can help my hippocampus out in such a simple and safe way!!!

  2. john Bawden says:

    Hi Harry great article and glad to link up with another like minded PT focusing on the over 50s. Regards John Bawden. Brisbane Australia

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