A very interesting case study came out recently, looking at the neurological function of a particularly active 93-year-old woman named Olga Kotelko (she died in 2014 at age 95) . She became an athlete in her sixties playing softball, then started track and field at age 77. Exercise benefits are often assumed to apply to our physical state, and it also seems to be associated more and more with good mental health. This study took things a step further and looked at her overall brain function to see if her routine exercise had any impact on both the brain itself as well as cognition.
“In general, the brain shrinks with age,” [University of Illinois Beckman Institute postdoctoral researcher Agnieszka] Burzynska said. Fluid-filled spaces appear between the brain and the skull, and the ventricles enlarge, she said.
“The cortex, the outermost layer of cells where all of our thinking takes place, that also gets thinner,” she said. White matter tracts, which carry nerve signals between brain regions, tend to lose their structural and functional integrity over time. And the hippocampus, which is important to memory, usually shrinks with age, Burzynska said.
Previous studies have shown that regular aerobic exercise can enhance cognition and boost brain function in older adults, and can even increase the volume of specific brain regions like the hippocampus, Kramer said.
Kotelko’s brain offered some intriguing first clues about the potentially beneficial effects of her active lifestyle.
Though it wasn't strongly emphasized in the article, something else really grabbed my attention:
“During dinner after the long day of testing, I asked Olga if she was tired, and she replied, ‘I rarely get tired,’” [Beckman Institute director Art] Kramer said. “The decades-younger graduate students who tested her, however, looked exhausted.”
It really does seem that our culture has a problem with sleep. I'm as guilty of not getting enough sleep as anyone. I have a bad habit of getting only around 6-7 hours of sleep per night. I blame the amount of things I have on my plate at any given time for this, but the likelier truth is that if I would get enough rest, I could probably manage all of these things with greater efficiency.
In any case, one of my goals since transitioning settings has been to both increase the amount of sleep I get and also start to exercise more. Forming new habits is hard, but watching Olga herself on video shows that it's clearly worth it.