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Physical Fitness Now and Brain Size Years Later

Another famous long-running study (Framingham Heart Study) finds more bad news for middle-aged coach-potatoes (that is, those who don't exercise or have poor physical fitness). It's an observational study (thus they found an association), but the finding is pretty damn convincing: that poor physical fitness (basically a sedentary life-style) may be linked to a smaller brain size (brain volume) 20 years later. The reason this is significant is because shrinking brain volume means that accelerated brain aging is occurring.

Researcher Nicole Spartano said: "Brain volume is one marker of brain aging. Our brains shrink as we age, and this atrophy is related to cognitive decline and increased risk for dementia. So, this study suggests that people with poor fitness have accelerated brain aging." Bottom line: if you don't get much exercise or lead a sedentary life-style, then increase your activity levels for hopefully better brain health decades later. Just getting out daily (or several times a week) and walking briskly would improve fitness. From Medical Xpress:

Couch potatoes may have smaller brains later in life

Poor physical fitness in middle age may be linked to a smaller brain size 20 years later, according to a study published in the February 10, 2016, online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology."We found a direct correlation in our study between poor fitness and brain volume decades later, which indicates accelerated brain aging," said study author Nicole Spartano, PhD, with Boston University School of Medicine in Boston.

For the study, 1,583 people enrolled in the Framingham Heart Study, with an average age of 40 and without dementia or heart disease, took a treadmill test. They took another one two decades later, along with MRI brain scans. The researchers also analyzed the results when they excluded participants who developed heart disease or started taking beta blockers to control blood pressure or heart problems; this group had 1,094 people. 

The participants had an average estimated exercise capacity of 39 mL/kg/min, which is also known as peak VO2, or the maximum amount of oxygen the body is capable of using in one minute. Exercise capacity was estimated using the length of time participants were able to exercise on the treadmill before their heart rate reached a certain level. For every eight units lower a person performed on the treadmill test, their brain volume two decades later was smaller, equivalent to two years of accelerated brain aging. When the people with heart disease or those taking beta blockers were excluded, every eight units of lower physical performance was associated with reductions of brain volume equal to one year of accelerated brain aging.

The study also showed that people whose blood pressure and heart rate went up at a higher rate during exercise also were more likely to have smaller brain volumes two decades later. Spartano said that people with poor physical fitness often have higher blood pressure and heart rate responses to low levels of exercise compared to people with better fitness. Spartano noted that the study is observational. It does not prove that poor physical fitness causes a loss of brain volume; it shows the association. (Link to study in journal Neurology.)

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