1. Why Exercise is Good For Your Brain

    June 24, 2013

    by Christine Hanchett

    We all know that exercise is important for maintaining a healthy body weight and gaining muscle, but did you know that exercise is good for your brain as well?  To be more specific, it is actually cardio exercise that has been shown to be great for the brain.  That is not to say that anaerobic exercise isn’t good for the brain—it’s just that there hasn’t been too many clinical studies to conclude one way or another yet.   But there has been a lot of research into cardiovascular exercise and improved cognition and brain plasticity.  So as to the specific reasons for the cardio exercise being good for the brain, here are the five main benefits:

    Sends More Oxygen to the Brain

      Physical exercise increases breathing and heart rate, sending more blood to your brain. The extra oxygen and glucose you receive from the improved blood circulation is used for enhanced energy production and waste removal. Exercise can actually make cerebral blood vessels grow, even in people of an older age. Walking is one of the best exercises you can do for your brain; you get the increased blood circulation and because it is not as strenuous as running, for instance, you do not get a buildup of oxygen and glucose in your leg muscles.


    Stimulates Growth of Neural Connections and Cells

      Exercise aids in the release of hormones, particularly those that aid in the growth and nourishment of new brain cells. New connections are also able to grow between important cortical areas of the brain. The growth of new neural cells (neurogenesis) and new connections between cells allows your brain to have what is called “plasticity.” Plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize neural pathways. These types of changes occur when we learn something new or memorize new information. Research supports the idea that if someone experiences a brain injury, plasticity allows another part of the brain to actually adapt itself to be able to perform the duties of the injured part!


    Better Cognition

      Exercise not only makes you look better, it can make you smarter as well! The increased blood flow to your brain from your increased heart rate can improve your memory, learning ability, concentration, executive functioning (planning, organization, the ability to mentally juggle several different tasks at once, etc) and abstract reasoning. To really improve your brain, take some ballroom dance classes; you’ll be getting the brain benefits of exercise and improving your cognition mentally (by having to remember the steps) at the same time!


    Reduces Effects of Stress

    When you are stressed, cortisol levels in your brain become higher, leading to slow, scattered thinking, impaired learning, and forgetfulness. High levels of cortisol can increase blood sugar and suppress the immune system. If prolonged, it can lead to muscle wasting (atrophy). Exercising helps to lower your cortisol levels, leading to clearer and faster thinking again.

    Protection Against Diseases

    Studies have shown that physical exercise can have a protective effect on the brain against diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The more an individual exercises, the less likely he or she is to develop dementia or lose their mental abilities. Even light or moderate exercisers reduce their risk for mental decline significantly. Risk of stroke is also cut in half for those who spend at least twenty minutes a day exercising. Interestingly, the positive effects of exercise against age-related diseases are shown to be particularly beneficial for women.

    With all of these mental benefits in addition to the obvious physical benefits, why are you still reading this?  Get your butt down to the gym—now!

    Image credit: Bruno Hotz

  2. On Music Therapy for Alzheimer and Dementia

    May 1, 2013

    Playing piano

    by Sophie Evans

    One of the most common symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease is dementia, which is a decline in brain function. The earlier someone is diagnosed with this incurable disease, the longer they are likely to have to deal with the symptoms associated with it.

    The greatest fear for most people upon hearing their doctor saying that have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is that they will lose their sense of self. They fear that dementia will rob them of their uniqueness and, once that gone, then there is no hope of recapturing it.

    Take for instance veteran soul musician Bobby Womack. He is only 68 years old. Despite being a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, he has trouble remembering songs that he wrote, and even the last names of his band members.

    Music Therapy and Dementia

    This is ironic because music therapy is one of the best ways to help treat every stage of Alzheimer’s, from early onset until later when the individual spends most of their time immobile in a bed or a wheelchair.

    Here are some specific ways it reduces symptoms: 

    1. Offers mental challenges to stimulate the brain and keep it active to fight off symptoms of dementia
    2. Affords individuals with ways express their emotions regarding symptoms related to Alzheimer’s
    3. Provides opportunity for repetition which improves memory function and therefore reduces the occurrences of memory loss
    4. Encourages singing along to lyrics which improves speech and vocal health, even for patients who are otherwise nonverbal
    5. Allows interaction which helps with social interaction and helps reduce depression

    How Music Therapy Works

    We use every part of our brain to process music. And not just in one way – we process music in multiple ways at once! Even if a part of the brain is damaged due to dementia, then music can still stimulate it in ways that prescription medication and other therapies cannot.

    Concetta Tomaino is a certified music therapist and director of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function at Beth Abraham Family of Health Services. She explains that “Music has a personal significance to someone…is a strong stimulus to engage responses in people.”

    In other words, if a particular song or piece of music has historic significance in regards to something from our past, then we are likely to be moved by it. Along with the memory of that event are the emotions associated with it. This can delay Alzheimer’s symptoms, and even improve quality of life.

    Individual Therapy Programs

    One of the largest benefits of music therapy is that the therapist can tailor and individualize programs to suit the unique needs of each patient who suffers from Alzheimer’s. These programs are based on the individual’s personal history and ability to engage with others.

    Just because something works for one person does not mean it will work for all patients. That is because each person who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s could present symptoms that are as unique as their own genetic makeup!

    The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (www.alzfdn.org) advises that any time a particular piece of music evokes distress that the session should discontinue. They observe that stress may be indicated by “agitation, facial grimaces or increasing muscular tension.”

    Alzheimer’s and Instruments

    Along with listening to music and singing to it, individuals can play an instrument to express their feelings, relieve stress, or just as a way to be able to interact socially. For those who have never played a musical instrument before, it is still possible to take basic lessons on learning.

    Learning how to play an instrument, like the piano, offers a way for Alzheimer’s patients to reach small goals and work their way up to slightly larger ones. For patients who lack the ability to sit at the piano, an iPad or other tablet offers how to learn piano notes.

    Being able to just tap or swipe across a digital screen to play an instrument helps Alzheimer’s patients build confidence regarding their new talent. Individuals who just prefer listening can operate an iPod or MP3 player – even if they lack the motor skills to do much else with their hands.

    Image Credit: Vladimir Agafonkin