Cardiovascular Fitness Linked to Cognition in Older Adults

A new study discovers a high cardiovascular fitness level in an older adult appears to activate certain areas of the brain associated with executive brain functions.

Typically, the aging process leads to declines in brain function, yet previous research has found that higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness in older adults can improve executive function in the brain. Executive functions include the ability to reason, problem-solve, and manage multiple priorities.

The new study, from a team at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois, reveals a connection between brain activation, cardiorespiratory fitness, and executive function in older adults.

Investigators said the dual-task processing that occurs in the area of the brain associated with executive functions is improved when an individual has higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness.

“Previous studies have shown that there’s a relationship between cardiorespiratory fitness and behavioral performance in older adults. Other studies have looked at cardiorespiratory fitness and brain function, but really linking all three of those hasn’t been quite been done as explicitly as we did in this paper,” said Chelsea Wong, an M.D./Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois and first author on the paper.

Wong’s and her team’s research has been published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

The team, led by Dr. Art Kramer, Beckman Institute director and professor of psychology and neuroscience at Illinois, examined brain imaging and fitness level data from 128 adults between the ages of 59-80.

With functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans gathered in the Beckman Institute’s Biomedical Imaging Center, the researchers found that certain regions of the brain were activated more when performing two simultaneous tasks compared to a single task.

“The reason we looked at dual-task specifically is because it’s a measure of executive function, which is required for multiple cognitive processes, such as working memory, task management, coordination, and inhibition,” said Wong.

“We know that as people age, executive function declines, so we found that with higher cardiorespiratory fitness, you can enhance executive function performance behaviorally as well as executive function-related brain activation.”

The team found the overall relationship between cardiorespiratory fitness levels and higher executive function may be partially explained through activation in a region of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex and the supplementary motor area (ACC/SMA).

“We analyzed areas of the brain that were activated while the participants were completing two tasks, and found that the ACC/SMA activation was associated with higher cardiorespiratory fitness. It’s an important area for higher level functions, such as conflict monitoring, multitasking, and dual-task processing itself,” said Wong.

“This research adds to our growing understanding of the relationship among physical activity and cognitive and brain function — and suggests that we can improve our brain health by changing our lifestyle even as we age,” said Kramer.

Source: Beckman Institute, University of Illinois