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Exercise Shown to Protect Both Heart and Mind
- Updated: August 26, 2014
Everyone knows that exercise is critical for a healthy heart but a new study conducted in Canada shows it could also be beneficial for a healthy mind. This study made a connection between aerobic fitness and bran function, specifically in older adults.
Findings from Dr. Claudine Gauthier and numerous researchers from the University of Montreal in Canada were published in the Neurology of Aging journal. Currently working as a post-doctoral fellow in Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Gauthier shares that arteries in the body stiffen with age while blood vessels harden. This is thought to start in the aorta, which is the main vessel from the heart prior to reaching the brain. This type of hardening is believed to contribute to cognitive changes that happen during a similar period of time.
Using a group of aging adults, Gauthier and the other researchers discovered people that had healthy aortas and were physically fit did much better on mental tests. Experts believe that the slowing of cognitive aging is possible by preserving vessel elasticity through physical exercise.
The two study groups consisted of 31 adults – one group aged 18 to 30 and the other group, 55 to 75. The goal of the study was to make comparisons between the two groups but also, within each of the age groups. Everyone involved with the study underwent both physical and mental tests.
The physical tests consisted of working out on machines and researchers measuring maximum oxygen intake over several 30-second periods. For the mental test, participants performed what is known as the “Stroop Effect Task”, which is cognitivie ability test validated scientifically.
As part of the Stroop Effect Task, participants were shown names of different colors, each printed in a different color. For instance, the written word RED was in YELLOW ink. After seeing the word, each individual was asked to shout out the color opposed to the word of the color.
In addition, all of the participants had three MRIs done, which were used to measure brain activity during the Stroop Effect Task test, blood flow to the brain, and stiffness of the aorta, the body’s largest blood vessel responsible for carrying oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the remainder of the body.
The results of all tests provided evidence associated with aorta elasticity, cardiorespiratory fitness, and age-related decline in the bran’s executive function. In addition, links between brain function and aerobic fitness, as well as brain function and vascular health were discovered.
According to Dr. Gauthier, MRIs have never been used for studies of this kind. Because of the use of MRIs, she and her colleges were able to find small effects within a healthy group of participants, suggesting that researchers may be able to adapt the test to conduct further studies on associations between vascular and cognitive in people who are less healthy.
Gauthier also notes that while more complex mechanisms might make a connection between cardiovascular fitness and health of blood vessels in the brain, the results prove that getting exercise helps maintain artery elasticity, which in turn prevents cerebrovascular damage but also preserves cognitive ability with age.