Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Active Body, Sharper Mind? Pitt Research Could Be a Big Step in Tying Exercise to Healthy, Older Brain

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Active Body, Sharper Mind? Pitt Research Could Be a Big Step in Tying Exercise to Healthy, Older Brain

Article excerpt

Awaiting one of her regular exercise workouts on the University of Pittsburgh's upper campus, 70-year-old Julie Murphy winced when describing forgetful moments that have begun plaguing her in a way that never occurred decades ago.

Sometimes it's forgetting the name of someone she has just met. Sometimes there's a slip-up with worse repercussions for the resident of Pittsburgh's Park Place neighborhood.

"I made my first mistake on my checking account last year," thinking she had made a payment that she hadn't, Ms. Murphy said.

"In the past I was always on top of everything," she said, snapping fingers twice for emphasis while recounting the administrative work she did for nonprofit groups. "I eat lunch with a bunch of people my age now, and we all talk about the little tiny things like [forgetting names or tasks] that we're noticing."

Occasional forgetfulness and other types of mental slowdown, such as increased difficulty with multitasking, are considered normal, age-related cognitive decline for most people in their 60s and older. It may or may not be a precursor of worse mental problems, including Alzheimer's disease or other dementia.

But such decline may also be preventable - or at least postponable. A growing number of researchers are examining changes in lifestyle - whether focused on exercise at Pitt or on diet, stress reduction and more elsewhere - that could aid mental functioning. And if they can identify just how those behaviors benefit the brain, their research can be of still greater use in helping develop effective drugs against Alzheimer's, a goal that has proved frustratingly elusive thus far.

"There's a lot of excitement and interest in exercise as one of the most promising lifestyle behaviors, one that we have the most evidence suggesting you can improve brain function and reduce the risk of dementia," Pitt psychology professor Kirk Erickson said. "That being said, there still remains a lot of skepticism."

Mr. Erickson, director of Pitt's Brain Aging and Cognitive Health Lab, is heading one of the largest studies ever devoted to exercise and mental function. The National Institute on Aging awarded a $21.8 million grant in 2016 to cover five years of research at Pitt, the University of Kansas and Northeastern University for what is called the IGNITE study.

Ms. Murphy is among 639 people ages 65 to 80 - mostly sedentary prior to the study - to be placed at the three sites in different exercise groups for 12 months each. They do either regular stretching exercises or 150 minutes or 225 minutes of brisk weekly walking, some of it supervised and some on their own. At the beginning and end of the study, they undergo an extensive battery of tests spanning cognitive abilities, MRI brain scans, genetics bloodwork, cardiovascular functioning and more.

The goal is to build upon prior, smaller studies - including one published by Mr. Erickson in 2011 - that point to exercise benefits for the brain. His earlier Pitt research found that just by walking 30 to 45 minutes three times a week for a year, participants 60 to 80 years old avoided the natural shrinkage of the hippocampus, which is central to the brain's memory function, and actually increased it by 2%.

"You might think that 2% is not that much, but 12 months of walking essentially reversed the age clock by about one to two years - to me, that's pretty remarkable," Mr. Erickson said.

Among shortcomings of that and other exercise studies, Mr. Erickson allowed, is that they have generally been done on a small scale; they haven't identified differences in effect between categories and volume of exercise; and they have done little to measure how and why different types of people are impacted.

In essence, everyone knows it's good to exercise for a broad range of benefits, but too little is known about the particulars on the mental side.

"We want to have physicians or other health professionals be able to recommend physical activity to improve brain function or prevent deficits, but we need a better prescription than just 'Get out and get more physical activity,'" Mr. …

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