Study: How Cardio Fitness, Exercise Counteract Cognitive Decline

The University of Texas at Dallas | By Stephen Fontenot

New research from The University of Texas at Dallas’ Center for Vital Longevity (CVL) supports the idea that the brains of older adults who maintain physical fitness by engaging in regular strenuous exercise more closely resemble those of younger adults.

Dr. Chandramallika Basak, associate professor of psychology in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, is the corresponding author of a study published online April 27 and in the June print edition of  Neuroscience that describes how strenuous physical activity and cardiorespiratory fitness help the brains of older adults compensate for age-related changes by improving their ability to perform complex cognitive tasks.

The results demonstrate the importance of maintaining physical fitness and regular strenuous exercise to prolong neurological health.

“Age is just one marker for cognitive health, and fitness can be a significant modifying factor,” said Basak, who directs the Lifespan Neuroscience and Cognition Lab in the CVL. “The brain activation patterns of high-fit older adults in our study resemble those of the young adults during a complex cognitive task that requires switching attention focus and updating memory rapidly. This suggests that physical fitness can significantly modify age-related changes in the brain.”

The researchers used functional MRI to measure fluctuations in blood oxygen level-dependent signals as the 52 study participants performed tasks involving several varieties of cognitive control. Limited research exists on contributions of physical activity and cardiorespiratory fitness to cognitive functions like those tested in the study, including switching, updating and event anticipation, Basak said.

“Our findings suggest that a lifestyle involving moderate to strenuous physical activity may help maintain cognitive processing in the prefrontal cortex of older adults that matches that of younger adults, while cardiorespiratory fitness may preserve neurovascular health of posterior brain regions,” Basak said. “What we mean by strenuous physical activity is a level of physical activity that actually gets your heart rate up and increases your lung capacity.”

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