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Pitt study links exercise, delay in mental decline

Ben Schmitt
| Friday, March 11, 2016, 7:47 a.m.
Summer Chastant leads a yoga class in her new comedic web series about life in a Los Angeles yoga studio.
Summer Chastant
Summer Chastant leads a yoga class in her new comedic web series about life in a Los Angeles yoga studio.

There's no question exercise is beneficial on many fronts, and a new study links calorie-burning in older people to delaying the onset of cognitive impairments such as Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

Research by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and UCLA Medical Center indicates regular physical activity, such as jogging, swimming or dancing, increases the dark tissue in the brain, known as gray matter, that contains neurons responsible for memory, speech, vision, hearing and impulse control.

The study revealed that people who burned the most calories through activities had more gray matter in the frontal, temporal and parietal lobes of their brains, which are associated with memory and learning.

“There are certain areas of the brain that are larger among people who expend a lot of calories, compared to people who do not,” said study investigator James Becker, a Pitt professor of psychiatry, psychology and neurology.

Brain scans over a five-year period of 876 people, age 65 or older, backed up the findings, Becker said.

Dr. Cyrus Raji, senior radiology resident at UCLA and a former Pitt medical student, led the team that analyzed the scans.

The study's participants, who were from Pittsburgh, Sacramento, Winston Salem, N.C., and Hagerstown, Md., underwent repeated intellectual assessments and were surveyed about how often they exercised. The same group of people is participating in a larger cardiovascular health study.

Pitt's medical school received additional money from the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health to study a subset of the research group consisting of about 320 residents from the Pittsburgh region. The Pittsburgh study showed that the participants who used the most energy had more gray matter in key areas of brain scans and were half as likely to have developed Alzheimer's disease five years later.

The findings were published Friday in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.

“We know that exercise keeps your brain healthier,” Becker said. “But this is the first time that I'm aware of that you can see the pathway from exercise to better brain health and better brain health to delaying the onset of a cognitive impairment.”

He said finding new ways to prevent or slow dementia and related disorders is essential because treatments for dementia are fairly limited.

“Rather than wait for memory loss, we might consider putting the patient on an exercise program and then rescan later to see if there are any changes in the brain,” Raji said.

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or

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