This article was originally published by the BHRC [http://www.otago.ac.nz/bhrc/news/otago651900.html]
As a cognitive neuropsychologist Dr Liana Machado is interested in how physical damage to the brain can impact on our functioning. As we age, our brains, like the rest of our bodies, undergo normal wear and tear which changes how they function. In her research Liana is trying to determine whether there is anything we can do to keep our brains healthier as we age, and so keep them working at their best for longer.
One of the first things she looked at was exercise. We’re told that exercise will keep our bodies healthy as we age, but what about our brains? “What we found,” Liana says, “was a direct relationship between frequency of physical activity and healthy cognitive function.” People who were moving around more had better functioning brains. “We’re not talking about high level activity here,” she assured the crowd at brain day, “for some people this was just a slow walk, or a walk on a small incline.” What was clear was that the more often people exercised the better their brain was coping with ageing.
Liana believes that this effect is caused by an increase in the amount of oxygen available to brain cells. When we exercise, blood flow around the body and the brain increases. This increases the amount of oxygen available to these tissues and for people who exercise regularly this effect is boosted. The body learns that it needs to be prepared for exercise, so it makes sure oxygen and energy stores are more readily available. This process is designed to boost exercise performance, but it seems to improve normal functioning as well.
If the key to this effect is oxygen, what else can we do to increase the amount we have floating around our brains? Eating beetroot might help. “Beetroot is good for blood flow,” Liana says, “so by using beetroot as a dietary intervention we might see similar benefits.” At the moment she is conducting cognitive tests for a trial that swaps out normal bread for bread with beetroot to see if it has any effects. “We’re trying to make these changes accessible,” she says, “you can’t just tell people to overhaul their whole lives and expect that to be sustainable, so we’re trying a single substitute.”
The jury is still out on the effect of beetroot bread, so what can people do in the meantime? Keep your brain and your body active. Try something new, go for more regular walks, and make small changes you can stick to. It is never too early, or too late, to make a change for the better.