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“So physical workouts are really important. Active patients who have Parkinson’s disease hit the threshold of being dysfunctional much later than people who are less active.”

Scientists group brain tissue into two categories: gray matter, the neuron-heavy area of the brain where functions such as seeing and producing emotions occur, and white matter, which acts as the electrochemical messaging superhighway between different areas of gray matter.

Last year, researchers in Texas recruited a group of elite senior athletes to study the impact of exercise on long-term cognition. The athletes had an average age of 74, were regionally or nationally competitive and had been training for at least 15 years.

“We know that every year you lose one to two percent of your brain matter due to aging, but we wanted to see how the Masters athletes compared to sedentary, relatively healthy people of the same average age,” said Benjamin Tseng, a research fellow with the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas.

Mr. Tseng and his colleagues gave both groups brain scans and had them take a battery of tests. They discovered that the athletic seniors had more gray matter in regions of the brain associated with motor control and spatial relationships.

More surprisingly, the researchers also found that the athletic seniors outperformed their sedentary counterparts on the cognitive tests — measuring attention, executive function and short- and long-term memory — and even compared favorably to a control group of healthy 30-year-olds.

“They were able to perform on par with the younger subjects, which was impressive enough, and on a couple of tests they were kicking the younger kids’ butts,” Mr. Tseng said. “Now, these were dedicated athletes, training six to seven days a week. But some of them started in their late 50s.

“That tells me that even in your middle age, there may be a chance that you can rewire and reprogram and give benefit to your brain through exercise.”

Social networking

Mr. Johnson’s job involves more than studying statistics, filling out lineup cards and deciding when to bring in relief pitchers. It involves knowing his players as people — knowing when a struggling Danny Espinosa needs an encouraging word or when rookie phenom Bryce Harper should be left in the lineup to work through a cold spell or when to call an unexpected, tension-busting closed-door team meeting during a late August losing streak.

After the meeting, Mr. Johnson told reporters what he had said to his players: “When we lose it’s harder on the coaches and the manager. We don’t sleep as well. But if they start winning a few games, they start making it easier on this old guy. And we all got a good laugh out of everything.”

Befitting one of the youngest teams in the major leagues, the Nationals have a notably loose, sociable clubhouse. Mr. Johnson fits right in. And that, too, is good for his brain health.

Research shows that socially engaged people are less likely to develop dementia. Animal studies — mostly in mice and rats — indicate that social isolation may reduce neuroplasticity.

According to health and aging expert Dr. William J. Hall, older people lacking socialization tend to deteriorate mentally at a quicker rate than their more engaged peers, and the development of social relationships has been linked to at least temporary improvements in memory.

“If you think about what a coach does, they teach,” said Dr. Hall, director of the Center for Healthy Aging, based at Highland Hospital, an affiliate of the University of Rochester (N.Y.) Medical Center. “That is a very high level of socialization, because most teaching is intellectual communication. And that is very good for the brain.

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