Exercise is highly beneficial for people of all ages, and I consider getting adequate physical exercise to be a crucial element of creating and maintaining excellent health throughout life.  For the older adult, exercise helps to maintain cardiovascular and musculoskeletal integrity, which is extremely important for optimal health and being able to live independently as we age.

A number of new research studies, however, are showing that physical exercise most likely also has very positive effects on our cognitive abilities as we age, and can keep the aging brain nimble and youthful, perhaps even staving off such dreaded afflictions as age-related dementia.  One of these studies, recently reported by the New York Times, showed that older adults, in this case men, who were frequent, regular exercisers displayed the same cognitive abilities as younger adults under the age of forty.

Tasks involving attention, problem solving, decision-making and other kinds of high-level thinking primarily use the area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex.  In younger adults, activation in the cortex is highly localized, depending on the exact nature of the task, in either the right or left hemisphere.  In older adults, however, both hemispheres normally have to activate to get the task done.  This phenomenon is called Harold, or hemispheric asymmetry reduction in older adults, and scientists are in general agreement that it is an overall reorganization and weakening of the brain’s functioning as we age.

The study involved a group of men aged 65-74, who did not show signs of dementia or other forms of serious cognitive decline.  They were given a specialized and challenging test of cognitive ability, in which younger people would produce marked activity in the left hemisphere of the prefrontal cortex.  Many of the older men tested required both the left and right hemispheres to activate in order to perform the test; in other words, they needed more of their brain to pitch in to get the job done, demonstrating the typical Harold pattern.

The fittest men, however, did not need both halves of the cortex to complete the test, and required only the left hemisphere to fire.  In essence, the fit men’s brains were acting as if they were decades younger!

I encourage everyone to develop and maintain a regular program of physical activity, and keep on working out and moving as you get older.  I myself am an avid exerciser, with workouts most days of the week using a variety of forms of exercise, and consider it an absolutely essential part of my life.

If you have been sedentary or inactive for a long time, I would definitely suggest you get checked by a physician before you start any exercise regime, especially if you are middle-aged or older.  If you are interested in individualized nutrition and exercise advice, please call my office to make an appointment and I will work with you to tailor a program to your needs.

Make a commitment to yourself today to include physical exercise as an integral element of your life, and set the stage now for vibrant wellness (physical and mental) and vitality even into your “old” age!


Dr. Allen gives free lectures at the Library three to four times each year, on topics of interest from the cutting edge of integrative medicine.  If you would like to be added to our mailing list for these lectures and his other speaking engagements, please email da@davidallenmd.com.