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Older Adults, Exercise, and the Brain

 Once again, research supports that you should get off your butt and exercise! Or do a moderate to vigorous physical activity at least several times a week, which can include housework, gardening, dancing, swimming, or walking briskly. Most important is to MOVE. And why is this so important? Not just for physical health and prevention of certain diseases, but also for the health of your brain, especially as it ages.

The research looked at both 31 young healthy adults (18 to 31 years old) and 26 older healthy adults (55 to 74 years old), assessed their cardiorespiratory (heart/lung) fitness on the treadmill, gave them a number of neurological tests, and also a memory task while their brain activity was observed during functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). They found that the older adults with higher heart/lung fitness had better performance on the memory task and greater brain activity in multiple regions than the older adults with low heart/lung fitness. The increased brain activity in those with higher levels of heart/lung fitness occurred in brain regions typically affected by age-related decline - in other words, higher fitness in older adults reduced some age-related differences.

The researchers thought these and other study results indicate that heart/lung fitness (cardiorespiratory fitness) may keep the brain younger (that is, it preserves neurological function and "neuroplasticity") as people age. They pointed out that some recent studies have revealed that lower cardiorespiratory (heart/lung) fitness was associated with accelerated cognitive decline and that older adults with lower heart/lung fitness had an increased risk for dementia.

From Health Day: Fitter Seniors May Have Healthier Brains

Good heart and lung fitness can benefit older adults' brains, researchers report.They assessed the heart/lung fitness of healthy young adults (aged 18 to 31) and older adults (aged 55 to 74), and compared their ability to learn and remember the names of strangers in photos. MRI scans recorded images of their brain activity as they learned the names.

The older adults had more difficulty with the memory test than the young adults. But older adults with high levels of heart/lung fitness did better on the test and showed more brain activity when learning new names than those of their peers with lower levels of heart/lung fitness. The increased brain activity in those with higher levels of heart/lung fitness occurred in regions typically affected by age-related decline. The findings suggest that heart/lung fitness may also help keep the brain healthy as people get older, according to the researchers. But the study did not prove a cause-and-effect link.

"Importantly, [heart/lung fitness] 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 study corresponding author Scott Hayes....The researchers said high levels of fitness will not prevent brain decline, but may slow it.

An excerpt from the original study, from Cortex: FMRI activity during associative encoding is correlated with cardiorespiratory fitness and source memory performance in older adults

For brain regions in which older adults showed reduced activation relative to young adults, including left inferior frontal gyrus, medial frontal gyrus, bilateral thalamus, and fusiform gyrus, we observed a step-wise pattern, with the greatest activation in young adults, followed by high CRF [cardiorespiratory fitness] older adults and then low CRF older adults, indicating that higher fitness in older adults reduced age-related differences. These findings suggest that CRF supports successful brain maintenance in aging, in that it promotes the preservation of neural function seen in young adults (Nyberg, Lovden et al., 2012). 

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