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HealthWrap: Exercise a memory-booster

By LIDIA WASOWICZ, UPI Senior Science Writer

Exercise can keep both your muscles and your memory from sagging with age, new research shows.

Scientists from Columbia University Medical Center in New York City say they have found working out targets the dentate gyrus, a brain region within the hippocampus that plays a part in normal age-related memory decline, which typically begins around 30.

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Using a specially designed Magnetic Resonance Imaging technique, the investigators said for the first time they were able to observe neurogenesis, or the growth of nerve cells, in a living brain. Past studies of this process relied on postmortem animal exams.

"No previous research has systematically examined the different regions of the hippocampus and identified which region is most affected by exercise," Dr. Scott Small, associate professor of neurology and lead author of the study published in the April online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said in a statement.

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"I, like many physicians, already encourage my patients to get active, and this adds yet another reason to the long list of reasons why exercise is good for overall health."

The investigation builds on the findings of study co-author Fred Gage of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., who observed the generation of neurons in the dentate gyrus in mice and the boosting of this process through exercise.

"Our next step is to identify the exercise regimen that is most beneficial to improve cognition and reduce normal memory loss so that physicians may be able to prescribe specific types of exercise to improve memory," said Small.


If that's not sufficient reason to get you off the couch, then do it for your heart's sake, another team from Columbia urges.

The scientists' analysis of blood samples from 46 adults, 20 to 45, before and after moderate or high-intensity workouts over 12 weeks sheds new light on how aerobic exercise cuts the risk of coronary heart disease.

It appears physical activity decreases inflammation, which reduces the risk of the fatty buildup in the arteries called atherosclerosis -- the cause of most cases of heart disease, said team leader Richard Sloan, professor of behavioral medicine.

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The researchers found significantly lower levels of tumor necrosis factor -- a trigger of the inflammatory cascade -- after both moderate and high-intensity aerobic training.

"These findings suggest strongly that exercise reduces the systemic inflammation that can lead to heart disease," Sloan said. "This study is especially significant because the value of exercise has never before been shown in TNF, and never in healthy adults who were not at high-risk for heart disease."

The results were reported at the annual meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society in Budapest, Hungary.

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Physical activity has also been touted as a stress reliever, something more Americans may need than previously thought, according to a study of 965 patients in 15 primary-care clinics that suggests anxiety disorders are surprisingly common yet often untreated.

Dr. Kurt Kroenke of the Indiana University School of Medicine and the Regenstrief Institute Inc. in Indianapolis and his colleagues report nearly 20 percent of patients seen by primary-care physicians have at least one anxiety disorder.

The study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, describes the effectiveness of a new screening tool -- dubbed the GAD-7 -- that can alert busy doctors to stressed-out patients.

The seven-question, self-administered survey identifies patients with undiagnosed generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, post traumatic stress disorder or social anxiety disorder.

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"Anxiety often manifests as a physical symptom like pain, fatigue or inability to sleep, so it is not surprising that one out of five patients who come to a doctor's office with a physical complaint have anxiety," said Kroenke, a professor of medicine who focuses on the connection between pain and other physical symptoms and anxiety, depression and other mental disorders.

"We can objectively measure blood pressure, blood sugar or cholesterol, but symptoms of anxiety can be missed in a busy primary-care practice," Kroenke said. "The seven-question GAD-7 ... gives the physician a tool to quantify the patient's symptoms -- sort of a lab test for anxiety."

The study was partially funded by Pfizer Inc.

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UPI Consumer Health welcomes comments on this column. E-mail: lwasowicz@upi.com

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