Older adults who engage in high levels of cardiovascular exercise — such as jogging, cycling, swimming, or dancing — may be increasing their brain health as well, according to a new study published in the journal Cortex.
The findings show that older adults who scored high on cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF) tests — a measure of the body’s ability to supply oxygen to the muscles during exercise — performed better on memory tests than those who had low CRF. In addition, the more fit the participants were, the more active their brain was during the learning process.
“Importantly, CRF is a modifiable health factor that can be improved through regular engagement in moderate to vigorous sustained physical activity such as walking, jogging, swimming, or dancing,” said corresponding author Scott Hayes, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine and associate director of the Neuroimaging Research for Veterans Center at the VA Boston Healthcare System.
“Therefore, starting an exercise program, regardless of one’s age, can not only contribute to the more obvious physical health factors, but may also contribute to memory performance and brain function,”
For the study, researchers recruited healthy young adults (18-31 years) and older adults (55-74 years) with a wide range of fitness levels to walk and jog on a treadmill.
The researchers assessed their cardiorespiratory fitness by measuring the ratio of inhaled and exhaled oxygen and carbon dioxide. These participants also underwent MRI scans which collected images of their brain while they learned and remembered names that were associated with pictures of unfamiliar faces.
As would be expected, older adults had more difficulty than younger adults learning and remembering the correct name associated with each face. Age differences in brain activation were observed during the learning of the face-name pairs, with older adults showing decreased brain activation in some regions and increased brain activation in others.
Importantly, however, the degree to which older adults demonstrated these age-related changes in memory performance and brain activity largely depended on their fitness level. Overall, older adults with high fitness levels showed better memory performance and increased brain activity patterns compared to their low fit peers.
In addition, the increased brain activation found in the high fit older adults was found in brain regions that show typical age-related decline, suggesting that fitness may contribute to brain maintenance. Higher fit older adults also had greater activation than young adults in some brain regions, showing that fitness may also serve a compensatory role in age-related memory and brain decline.
The findings suggest that CRF is not only important for physical health but also for brain function and memory performance.
The researchers caution that maintaining high levels of fitness through physical activity will not entirely eliminate or cure age- or Alzheimer’s disease-related decline, but it may slow down the decline.
Source: Boston University Medical Center