According to a study published in Neurology®, poor physical fitness in middle age may be linked to a smaller brain size 20 years later.
For the study, 1,583 people with an average age of 40 and without dementia or heart disease, took a treadmill test. Two decades later, they took the same treadmill test and had MRI brain scans done.
The participants had an average estimated exercise capacity of 39 mL/kg/min, which is the maximum amount of oxygen the body is capable of using in one minute. Exercise capacity was estimated using the length of time participants were able to exercise on the treadmill before their heart rate reached a certain level. For every eight units lower a person performed on the treadmill test, their brain volume two decades later was smaller, which is equivalent to two years of accelerated brain aging. When the people with heart disease or those taking beta blockers were excluded, every eight units of lower physical performance was associated with reductions of brain volume equal to one year of accelerated brain aging.
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The study also showed that people whose blood pressure and heart rate went up at a higher rate during exercise also were more likely to have smaller brain volumes two decades later. Compared to people with better physical fitness, people with poor physical fitness have higher blood pressure and heart rate responses to low levels of exercise.
The study does not prove that poor physical fitness causes a loss of brain volume but it does show an important correlation between poor fitness and brain volume decades later, which indicates accelerated brain aging.
The results suggest that fitness in middle age may be particularly important for the many millions of people around the world who already have evidence of heart disease.
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