Fitness in Middle Age May Improve Brain Health in Later Life
According to a recent US study, better aerobic fitness in middle age can mean better brain health later in life.
The study included 146 healthy participants, with an average age of 69 as the research began. Their cardiorespiratory fitness was measured using treadmill tests, and MRI scans were used to detect changes in brain volume.
Using mathematical models to estimate participants’ fitness levels when they were 50 years old, the researchers deduced that those who were fitter in middle age had greater brain volume in the middle temporal gyrus later in life – an area of the brain which is believed to be involved in memory, language and visual perception. They also had greater brain volume in the perirhinal cortex, which is thought to aid unconscious memory and object recognition, and a greater volume of white matter. The decline of white matter is a potential early symptom of Alzheimer’s disease, so a higher volume is a positive sign in the ageing brain.
“The current findings suggest that maintaining high fitness in midlife may boost brain health on average 20 years later in adults who have not yet experienced cognitive impairment,” says lead author Qu Tian, a gerontology researcher at the US National Institute on Aging.
This is not the first study to link fitness to improved brain health. However, because this study and similar ones are conducted using particularly healthy participants, it is difficult to say whether the results can be applied to the wider population. Also, not everyone achieves the same benefits from the same amount of exercise, making it difficult to determine the process by which exercise impacts the brain and how much of it is beneficial. For these reasons, more research is needed for clarification.
“Nonetheless, this study adds to a field that has been repeatedly showing positive associations and effects of physical activity and fitness on brain health in late adulthood,” says Kirk Erickson, a researcher at the Brain Aging & Cognitive Health Lab at the University of Pittsburgh.