Structural changes in the brain become evident as we age. By the age of 65, there is a notable reduction in neurotransmitter binding potential and synaptic receptor density and efficacy. A change in cortical and cerebellar metabolism, gray matter atrophy, white matter loss and ventricular enlargement follow an anterior to posterior gradient originating in the frontal regions. This correlates to a decline in cognitive performance. Cognition encompasses memory, attention, decision-making, and problem-solving capabilities. Research for many years, has shown the benefits of cognitive intervention as well as physical intervention in battling age-related cognitive decline, but which is better?
Cognitive therapy is a common and very simple method that requires no physical effort. Reading books and playing mental games like sudoku, memory games, calculations, and visual searches are most commonly applied methods. This method is highly effective against age-related cognitive decline and proved just as effective as cognitive therapy combined with physical activity.
Physical activity is beneficial to the body in many ways. It can provide cardiovascular benefits but it is also recognized in many animals as having neuronal stimulating capabilities. Unfortunately, within a 96-week period, physical activity demonstrated less effective than both cognitive intervention and cognitive intervention combined with physical activity. Physical exercise did howerver, show an improvement in cognition over those who did not exercise and were not involved in any cognitive therapy.
Cognitive Intervention Combined with Physical Activity
Greater results were expected when combined cognitive intervention with physical exercise, however, there was no significant improvement over cognitive intervention alone. The physical intervention involved aerobic exercise, balance coordination, flexibility, gymnastic exercises, walking, strength training, Wii games, dancing, Taichi, and step exercises. Discussion questioning the results came to the conclusion that combined intervention requires both mental and physical exertion of older adults, and possibly leads to cognitive fatigue, excessive stress and higher frequency produced lesser results. Unfortunately, the researchers could not demonstrate a superior method between cognitive intervention and physical exercise.
The short time period investigated (96 weeks) may lack information on the best overall method for reducing age-related cognitive decline. Long term data is required before making any definitive judgments over which strategy is better.
Non-Invasive Brain Stimulation
Newer methods currently being researched for fighting age-related cognitive decline include non-invasive brain stimulation techniques. These include repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, theta-burst stimulation, and transcranial electrical stimulation. Reports of a long-lasting effect of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation are currently being investigated. Although the results of these methods are variable, there are great expectations for breakthroughs from these methods in the near future.
- Xinyi Zhu, Shufei Yin, Minjia Lang, Rongqiao He, Juan Li. “The more the better? A meta-analysis on effects of combined cognitive and physical intervention on cognition in healthy older adults.” Aging Research Reviews 31: 67-79. 2016.
- Elisa Tatti, Simone Rossi, Iglis Innocenti, Alessandro Rossi, Emiliano Santarnecchi. “Non-invasive brain stimulation of te aging brain: State of the art and future perspectives.” Aging Research Reviews 29: 66-89. 2016.