Next time you find yourself debating whether to hit the gym, consider this: A Boston University School of Medicine study published in 2016 has linked poor physical fitness in midlife with smaller brain size two decades later.
Researchers followed more than 1,500 participants from the decades-long Framingham Heart Study. Subjects took a treadmill test around age 40, and another one 20 years later, each with a subsequent brain scan. In both instances, researchers gauged how long each subject was able to exercise until exhaustion or until reaching 85 percent maximal heart rate (an estimate based on age and gender). They also measured each subject’s blood pressure.
The researchers found a significant correlation between fitness capacity and brain mass, noting in particular that higher blood pressure in midlife was associated with smaller brain volume in later years.
While past research has pointed to this link, this is the first long-term study of its kind to focus on middle-age participants.
“The difference with our study was our observation that fitness earlier in life was related to brain aging two decades later,” explains study author Nicole Spartano, PhD. “Over the course of a lifetime, these mechanisms may have an impact on brain aging and prevent cognitive decline in older age.”
She also notes the study was purely observational — no control group was used to confirm a causative link between exercise and brain health — and more study is needed.