According to a recent UC San Francisco study appearing in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, when elderly people remain physically active their brains have more of a class of proteins that works to enhance the connections between neurons to help maintain healthy cognition.

The protective impact was even found to remain in those whose brains at autopsy were riddled with toxic proteins that are associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. The beneficial impact of physical activity on cognition has been demonstrated in animal models but have been harder to show in humans.

“Our work is the first that uses human data to show that synaptic protein regulation is related to physical activity and may drive the beneficial cognitive outcomes we see,” said Kaitlin Casaletto, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Neurology and lead author of the study, which appears in the Jan. 7 issue of Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Casaletto is a neuropsychologist and member of the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences who worked with William Honer, MD, and professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia as well as being the senior author of the study, to collect data from the Memory of Aging Project at Rush University in Chicago which tracked the late-life physical activity of elderly people who also agreed to donate the brains when they died.

“Maintaining the integrity of these connections between neurons may be vital to fending off dementia, since the synapse is really the site where cognition happens,” Casaletto said. “Physical activity – a readily available tool – may help boost this synaptic functioning.”

The researchers found that elderly people who remained active had higher levels of certain proteins that help to facilitate the exchange of information between neurons, and these effects were also found to range beyond the hippocampus, which is the memory seat in the brain, extending to encompass other brain regions that are associated with cognitive functioning. These results corresponded with earlier findings of elderly people with more of these proteins in their brains when they died being more able to maintain their cognition later in life.

“It may be that physical activity exerts a global sustaining effect, supporting and stimulating healthy function of proteins that facilitate synaptic transmission throughout the brain,” Honer said.

Brain wearing sunglasses working out with dumbbells

Typically brains of older adults accumulate amyloid and tau which are toxic proteins that are the hallmarks of the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease. It is believed that the amyloid proteins accumulate first then tau which causes synapses and neurons to fail.

Previous work found that synaptic integrity, whether measured in the spinal fluid of living adults or measured in the brain tissue of autopsied adults, appeared to diminish the relationship between amyloid and tau, as well as between tau and neurodegeneration.

“In older adults with higher levels of the proteins associated with synaptic integrity, this cascade of neurotoxicity that leads to Alzheimer’s disease appears to be attenuated,” she said. “Taken together, these two studies show the potential importance of maintaining synaptic health to support the brain against Alzheimer’s disease.”

As with anything you read on the internet, this article should not be construed as medical advice; please talk to your doctor or primary care provider before changing your wellness routine.

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