Stay Active to Stay Sharp as You Age

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Need another reason to stay physically active as you age? A recent study out of UC San Francisco suggests a protective effect of exercise to keep your mental faculties sharp.

Certain protein classes have been linked with physical activity. Synaptic protein regulation appears to benefit brain function and reduce the risk of neurodegenerative disease, according to a study published in Alzheimer’s and Dementia: The Journal of The Alzheimer’s Association. Lead author was Kaitlin Casaletto, PhD, an assistant professor of neurology. 

The positive impact of exercise on cognition has been seen in mice, but has been more difficult to show in humans. This is the first study of its kind. Research was conducted by Casaletto, a neuropsychologist and member of the Well Institute of Neurosciences. She worked with Dr. William Honer, a psychiatry professor at the University of British Columbia. Data was extracted from the Memory and Aging Project at Rush University in Chicago. Then the team tracked exercise later in life in older subjects. Participants agreed to donate their brains after their deaths. 

Casaletto notes that, "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. Physical activity -- a readily available tool -- may help boost this synaptic functioning."

More Proteins Equal Better Nerve Prompts:

Casaletto and Honer discovered that older individuals that stayed active had increased levels of proteins that aid in the exchange of information between neurons. These results validated Honer’s previous discovery that people with more of these proteins in their brains (seen after they died) were more likely to keep their cognition in their later years of life.

Other brain regions beyond the hippocampus were impacted. The hippocampus is the brains’ main memory hub, though other regions impact cognitive function.

Honer believes "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." 

Synapses Protect Brains That Indicate Signs of Dementia:

Toxic proteins such as amyloid and tau collect in the brains of most older adults. These proteins are signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers believe amyloid initially, then tau, make neurons and synapses degenerate.

Synaptic integrity (measured in spinal fluid of living adults or in brains of those who had died) helped quell the link between amyloid and tau and between tau and neurodegeneration, according to previous research by Casaletto. 

Increased levels of proteins linked with synaptic activity in older adults reduced neurotoxicity associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Physical activity boosts the production of these proteins.

Want to help your senior clients keep moving to stay sharp? Visit the post Activity Ideas for Seniors for ways to get started!

By Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD


Kaitlin Casaletto, Alfredo Ramos?Miguel, Anna VandeBunte, Molly Memel, Aron Buchman, David Bennett, William Honer. Late?life physical activity relates to brain tissue synaptic integrity markers in older adultsAlzheimer's & Dementia, 2022; DOI: 10.1002/alz.12530

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