A new Canadian study of older adults suggests that the well-established link between physical fitness and brain function may be particularly strong in men. The findings are published in the Journal of Applied Physiology.
Previous research has linked fitness levels with changes in the brain’s nerve-rich gray matter and better cognitive function in later life. Studies have also shown that cardiorespiratory fitness — a measure of how well oxygen is delivered to the muscles during exercise — is tied to how the brain functions during periods of rest.
As we get older, our resting state nerve connectivity begins to change. These changes can negatively affect cognitive function.
In the new study, researchers from York University and McGill University in Canada investigated the potential gender differences in the relationship between fitness and brain function in older adults.
The research team evaluated a group of 20 men and a group of 29 women, both with an average age of 67. The participants self-reported their typical daily physical activity levels and had their height, weight, age, sex and resting heart rate recorded to determine their cardiorespiratory fitness.
The volunteers also underwent brain imaging tests to record nerve function both within specific brain networks (local efficiency) and among all networks (global efficiency).
Overall, the men were found to have higher cardiorespiratory fitness levels than the women, while the women showed both higher local network efficiency and lower global network efficiency. This pattern of connectivity found in the female participants has been linked to executive function, which are skills that contribute to being able to focus, pay attention and manage time.
Fitness levels, however, were more strongly associated with improving this brain efficiency pattern for men than women.
“Our findings that [cardiorespiratory fitness] is associated with brain function in a sex-dependent manner underscore the importance of considering sex as a factor when studying associations between exercise and brain health in older adulthood,” the researchers wrote.
Around 31 million adults age 50 and older are inactive, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Living a sedentary life can take a large toll on one’s physical and mental health and is linked to a higher risk of premature death.
Older adults who cannot meet the general physical activity guidelines (150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week) should be as active as their abilities or conditions allow, according to the CDC.
Source: American Physiological Society