As we age, our brains experience structural changes, including loss of volume, which can impact cognitive function. Over the years, various studies have shown that adopting healthy lifestyle behaviors can help prevent brain atrophy and thus, stave off age-related cognitive decline. A recent study from the Boston University School of Medicine suggests that it is never too late to harness the benefits of healthy behaviors. In particular, researchers found that a higher physical fitness level in your 40s is directly correlated with higher brain volume and better performance on cognitive tests in your 60s. These findings indicate that the brain health of our aging population needs to be addressed earlier on in order to prevent accelerated brain aging.
The study followed 1,271 individuals who were initially free from cognitive issues and heart disease over the course of two decades. Researchers first assessed physical fitness levels in the 1970s, when the participants’ average age was 41. Fitness level was determined based on diastolic blood pressure and heart rate as the participants walked on a slow-moving treadmill (recorded at 2.5 miles an hour). An individual with a lower physical fitness level was more likely to have a higher blood pressure and heart rate during low levels of exercise as compared to those with higher fitness levels.
When the individuals were in their 60s, beginning in 1999, researchers took MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) of their brains and conducted cognitive testing to assess their decision-making abilities. Analyses showed that individuals in their 40s with lower fitness levels were more likely to have smaller total cerebral brain tissue volumes and poorer cognitive performance at age 60 than their more fit counterparts.
Researchers also found that a higher resting blood pressure rate at age 40 was associated with a smaller frontal lobe volume and a greater volume of white matter hyperintensity at age 60, both of which result from age-related blood-flow loss. Higher physical fitness levels indicate better oxygen and nutrient delivery to the brain, promoting healthy cognitive functioning.
Findings such as these may change the way we address brain health in our aging population by making physical fitness and cognitive health priorities earlier on in life for positive impacts down the road. No matter your age, physical activity is good for brain and overall health, so make sure that you incorporate exercise into your regular routine.