Here are a few things to think about while, say, spending time running on a treadmill - better that than reading a newspaper while doing it!
We have reported on many studies that have shown that exercise is good for the brain as well as the body. Now a new study has suggested that something like the reverse is also true, that obesity is bad for your brain, specifically for the volume of the brain’s grey matter. Grey matter is a major constituent part of the brain and is important in areas of the brain involved in muscle control and sensory perception such as seeing and hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision making, and self-control. Having less of it is not a good thing, and the research by Mark Hamer of Loughborough University and David Batty of University College London does appear to show that, as obesity increases, the brain’s grey matter takes the opposite route and gradually shrinks.
This new research goes along with earlier research by the same two scientists that shows a correlation between lower levels of physical activity and reduced volume of grey matter. And it doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to associate lower levels of physical activity with obesity.
Another area of research into the interaction between exercise and the brain, and closely related to the above although in the polar opposite direction, is research into the effects of exercise on a brain function called Neurogenesis. Neurogenesis is the function whereby the brain creates new neurons, the cells which make up much of the grey matter in the brain. Until twenty or so years ago it was thought that the nerve cells that you had at birth were all you were ever going to have. But a discovery around that time by Professor Rusty Gage, at the Salk Institute in California, showed that neurons are continuing to be produced throughout life. This takes place within the Hippocampus, a brain region associated with learning and memory, in a process called Adult Hippocampal Neurogenesis. And it appears that this process is increased by sustained aerobic activity such as running, whether on a treadmill or outdoors.
Increasing the brain’s continuing ability to produce healthy new neurons will no doubt be a great factor in the fight against rising levels of dementia, so anything one can do to help it is obviously a good thing.
On a mildly related subject, science weighs in again with research into so-called zombie cells, or to give them their correct title senescent cells. According to an article in the Guardian newspaper, these are cells that have ceased dividing, as a defence against cancer, so they are themselves not particularly useful to the body. However are they are also themselves resistant to dying so they build up and hang around in the body. Not only that, they secrete substances which poison the cells surrounding them, causing among other things inflammation in those surrounding cells, inflammation being thought to be one of the main causes of much of age-related decline and disease.
Although discovered in the 1950’s, the recent interest in and research into senescent cells has been the trigger for several high-tech biology start-ups which have been able to raise funds from among others the founders of some well-established tech companies, who are themselves interested in using science to prolong healthy, high-functioning life. For instance this, also from the Guardian. So have a read of the Guardian’s article to get more information on all the different approaches to eradicating these zombie cells.
And if you are reading this because you have already reached an age where you are feeling the need to protect yourself against the ravages of time, do you really have the luxury of waiting who-knows-how-many years for scientists to come up with a magic pill, all the while your body and brain, with you doing nothing about it, continue on their downward spiral? You have the choice between waiting for the scientists (which could take years) or doing something about it yourself now. So, take the excellent advice from the first two points in this article and just get out there and run!