Along with better cognitive functioning, exercise decreases chances of dementia in elderly women.
Paul Baker/the Gauntlet

Hey grandma! Exercise pays off!

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As we age, our youthful appearances fade and our physical strength and memories weaken.

Although all seems lost, University of Calgary physiology and biophysics associate professor Marc Poulin and his team have discovered that older women who regularly exercise enhance their cognitive function.

The findings show that cardiorespiratory fitness stimulates blood flow to the brain which allows women to sharpen their mental abilities. According to Poulin, the study involved measuring a woman's fitness, physiological responses and cognitive outcomes.

"In sophisticated regression analyses, we were able to show that the brain's vascular responses and blood pressure responses were predictors of cognitive function," said Poulin, who also works in the clinical neurosciences department at the U of C. "We believe this to be compelling evidence that aerobic fitness contributes to the maintenance of healthy brain function with aging and our results provide strong scientific basis for future study."

Poulin and his team compared two groups of women with an average age of 65 over a one-month period. They were divided between women who were physically fit and those who did not exercise. Of the 42 women randomly sampled, the active group had lower blood pressure and improved cognitive function scores.

"On the one hand, it was an opportunity to have a look at these changes in a group that will increase substantially as a portion of the population," said Poulin. "We don't think that the findings will be different with men. The next step is to study both men and women."

The researchers measured cardiovascular mechanisms, resting brain blood flow, the reserve capacity of blood vessels in the brain and cognitive functions. As Poulin and his team were comparing active and inactive women, they found that sedentary routines increased the chances of women getting stroke or dementia. The new research suggests that exercising regularly may prevent or delay these certain cerebral diseases.

"We think there's increasing evidence that exercise is good for the brain and it can be as little as walking three to five times a week," said Poulin.

The study, called Effects of Cardiorespiratory Fitness and Cerebral Blood Flow on Cognitive Outcomes in Older Women, was published last year in Poulin's international journal Neurobiology of Aging.

The new research, which offers an incentive for seniors to exercise, is supported by AHFMR, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Alberta, NWT and Nunavut, Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Brenda Strafford Foundation.