Exercising the body and mind may help your residents, according to two newly published studies.

In one study older adults who improved their physical fitness through a moderate-intensity exercise program increased the thickness of their brain’s cortex, the outer layer of the brain that typically atrophies with Alzheimer’s disease, found researchers from the University of Maryland School of Public Health.

“Exercise may help to reverse neurodegeneration and the trend of brain shrinkage that we see in those with mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s,” says J. Carson Smith, Ph.D., associate professor of kinesiology and senior author of the study, published in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society. “Many people think it is too late to intervene with exercise once a person shows symptoms of memory loss, but our data suggest that exercise may have a benefit in this early stage of cognitive decline.”

In the study, previously physically inactive participants, aged 61 to 88 years, were put on an exercise regimen that included moderate intensity walking on a treadmill four times a week over a 12-week period. On average, cardiorespiratory fitness improved by about 8% as a result of the training in both the healthy participants and those with mild cognitive impairment. Study participants who showed the greatest improvements in fitness had the most growth in the cortical layer. Those with mild cognitive impairment showed greater improvements in the left insula and superior temporal gyrus, two brain regions that have been shown to exhibit accelerated neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s disease, compared with members of healthy group.

Other research, published online in the journal Neuropsychology by the American Psychological Association, found that older adults who take college courses may increase their cognitive capacity and possibly reduce their risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

An Australian project called the Tasmanian Healthy Brain Project recruited 359 participants aged 50 to 79 years. They took a series of cognitive tests before completing at least a year of full-time or part-time study at the University of Tasmania. Participants were reassessed annually for three years following their studies. More than 90% of the participants displayed a significant increase in cognitive capacity, compared with 56% in a control group of 100 participants who didn’t take any college courses.

“The study findings are exciting because they demonstrate that it’s never too late to take action to maximize the cognitive capacity of your brain,” said lead researcher Megan Lenehan, Ph.D.

Participants in the college studies group took a wide range of courses, including history, psychology, philosophy and fine art. Most of the students took courses on campus, but some completed online classes. The researchers suspect that campus study may provide greater benefits in boosting cognitive capacity because of social interaction with professors and fellow students, but the study didn’t analyze any differences between on-campus or online courses.

“It is possible that any mentally stimulating activity later in life may also enhance cognitive capacity, such as other adult-education classes or programs to increase social interaction,” Lenehan added.

The study was too short to reveal any long-term effects, so the researchers plan to follow the participants as they age to provide additional evidence of whether college studies may reduce the risk or delay the onset of dementia.