Connections between different parts of the brain weaken with age, but new research suggests that being physically fit can boost long-term brain function.
A study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that age-related differences in the brains of older adults varied, depending on their level of aerobic endurance.
The researchers found greater fitness is associated with stronger brain connections later in life. However, the study did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship between the two.
“Our study provides the strongest evidence to date that fitness in an older adult population can have substantial benefits to brain health in terms of the functional connections of different regions of the brain,” Arthur Kramer, director of the Beckman Institute, said in a university news release.
The study involved both younger and older adults. Using functional MRI brain scans, the researchers assessed the strength of the connections in different parts of the participants’ brains while they were awake but not performing any particular task.
Unsurprisingly, the younger adults had stronger brain connections than the older participants. But among the older people, the investigators found a relationship between their level of fitness and the strength of the connections between certain areas of their brains.
The findings were published online recently in the journal NeuroImage.
“An encouraging pattern in the data from our study and others is that the benefits of fitness seem to occur within the low-to-moderate range of endurance, suggesting that the benefits of fitness for the brain may not depend on being extremely fit,” study leader Michelle Voss, who was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois at the time of the study, said in the news release.
“The idea that fitness could be related to brain health regardless of one’s physical activity levels is intriguing because it suggests there could be clues in how the body adapts for some people more than others from regular activity,” Voss said. “This will help our understanding of how fitness protects against age-related cognitive [mental] decline and dementia.”
The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more about the human brain.
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