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Physical Fitness Slows Cognitive Decline with Aging

Strong heart, slim waist, improved mood, increased muscle tone – there are many reasons for getting your daily dose of exercise.

Sure, regular physical activity is great for keeping your body fit, but new research is showing that it can help keep your mind fit, too.

A study by researchers from the National Institute on Aging published in The Journals of Gerontology examined the effects of physical exercise on mental function and found that that physical fitness may help preserve cognitive and memory skills.

The participants, who were part of the Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Aging, were between the ages of 19-94 years old. They were asked to walk on a treadmill, and the speed was gradually increased every two minutes until the point of exhaustion. As they exercised, researchers measured their VO2 max, the maximal amount of oxygen used by the lungs during one minute of strenuous physical activity; this figure is considered one of the best methods by which to assess cardiovascular fitness.

“Your cardiovascular fitness at one point in time can predict how well memory may function in the future.”

After the exercise, they performed tests of memory, attention, executive function, perceptuomotor speed, and language. Participants were then dismissed to continue their normal daily lifestyles and followed for an average of seven years; during this follow-up period, they performed memory and brain function tests at least once.

Researchers charted participants’ physical fitness alongside their error frequency on cognitive tests. Results showed that individuals who were the least physically fit at the start of the study showed “significantly greater prospective decline in performance on multiple measures of visual and verbal memory.”

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For example, 80-year-olds, who were at some point in their lives about twice as fit as their counterparts, made about 25% fewer mistakes on a test of memory and concentration. By contrast, those who performed best in the VO2 test – the most physically fit participants – experienced less cognitive decline than those who had lower VO2 max scores.

Lead researcher Carrington R. Wendell, PhD, stated, “your cardiovascular fitness at one point in time can predict how well memory may function in the future.” However, she warned that the study was observational, and while it shows the two factors are linked, it does not provide conclusive evidence.

Regardless, researchers wrote that the results show the importance of early intervention to improve fitness, as evidence linking cardiovascular risk factors and the development of both dementia and Alzheimer’s disease continues to grow.

The Bottom Line

We often associate fitness levels with cardiovascular health, but this and other studies point to the relationship between fitness levels and cognitive function. With one in eight Americans diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and that number expected to double by 2050, understanding what we can do now as young and mature adults to optimize cognitive aging is imperative.

In addition, more than two-thirds of the population is overweight or obese, and fewer than 25% of adults meet the federal recommendations for physical exercise; this shows an immediate need to develop programs and interventions to get people moving.

The bottom line is that physical exercise offers numerous benefits, but increased cognitive function, enhanced attention and concentration, better recall, improved executive function, and sharpened naming and language skills are other motivating reasons to stay active.

Curious about your own VO2 max? Test your “fitness age” here by entering information about your gender, age, physical activity, waist circumference (multiply inches by 2.54 to obtain centimeter measurement) and pulse. According to a study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, just those five measurements can predict your VO2 max with “noteworthy accuracy.”

This is one instance where you can kill two birds with one stone – so get moving to get your body and mind fit for the future!

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