Older, fitter adults experience greater brain activity while learning

January 13, 2017, Boston University Medical Center
Credit: Human Brain Project

Older adults who experience good cardiac fitness may be also keeping their brains in good shape as well.

In what is believed to be the first study of its kind, who scored high on cardiorespiratory (CRF) tests performed better on memory tasks than those who had low CRF. Further, the more fit older adults were, the more active their brain was during learning. These findings appear in the journal Cortex. Difficulty remembering new information represents one of the most common complaints in aging and decreased is one of the hallmark impairments in Alzheimer's disease.

Healthy young (18-31 years) and older adults (55-74 years) with a wide range of fitness levels walked and jogged on a treadmill while researchers assessed their by measuring the ratio of inhaled and exhaled oxygen and carbon dioxide. These participants also underwent MRI scans which collected images of their brain while they learned and remembered names that were associated with pictures of unfamiliar faces.

The researchers found that older adults, when compared to younger adults, had more difficulty learning and remembering the correct name that was associated with each face. Age differences in were observed during the learning of the face-name pairs, with older adults showing decreased brain activation in some regions and increased brain activation in others. However, the degree to which older adults demonstrated these age-related changes in memory performance and brain activity largely depended on their fitness level. In particular, high fit older adults showed better memory performance and increased brain activity patterns compared to their low fit peers. The increased brain activation in the high fit older adults was observed in brain regions that show typical age-related decline, suggesting fitness may contribute to brain maintenance. Higher fit older adults also had greater activation than young adults in some brain regions, suggesting that fitness may also serve a compensatory role in age-related memory and brain decline.

According to the researchers this study highlights that CRF is not only important for physical health, but is also associated with and memory performance. "Importantly, CRF is a modifiable health factor that can be improved through regular engagement in moderate to vigorous sustained physical activity such as walking, jogging, swimming, or dancing. Therefore, starting an exercise program, regardless of one's age, can not only contribute to the more obvious physical health factors, but may also contribute to memory performance and brain function," explained corresponding author Scott Hayes, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine and the Associate Director of the Neuroimaging Research for Veterans Center at the VA Boston Healthcare System.

The researchers caution that maintaining high levels of fitness through physical activity will not entirely eliminate or cure age- or Alzheimer's disease related decline, but it may slow down the decline. Future studies following individuals' fitness and levels, memory, and function over the course of years would more directly address this issue.

Explore further: Study finds cardiorespiratory fitness contributes to successful brain aging

Related Stories

Study finds cardiorespiratory fitness contributes to successful brain aging

April 27, 2015
Cardiorespiratory fitness may positively impact the structure of white matter in the brains of older adults. These results suggest that exercise could be prescribed to lessen age-related declines in brain structure.

Study reveals connection between fitness level, brain activity, and executive function

September 11, 2015
The aging process is associated with declines in brain function, including memory and how fast our brain processes information, yet previous research has found that higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness in older adults ...

Strength of brain connectivity varies with fitness level in older adults

November 5, 2015
A new study shows that age-related differences in brain health - specifically the strength of connections between different regions of the brain - vary with fitness level in older adults. The findings suggest that greater ...

Study finds cardiorespiratory fitness improves memory among older adults

December 22, 2014
Older adults who have greater heart and lung health also have better memory recall and cognitive capabilities. The study, which appears online in the Journal of Gerontology, examines the relationship between cardiorespiratory ...

Study highlights the importance of physical activity and aerobic exercise for healthy brain function

December 2, 2015
Regardless of gender, young adults who have greater aerobic fitness also have greater volume of their entorhinal cortex, an area of the brain responsible for memory. Better aerobic fitness however does not appear to impact ...

Memory improves for older adults using computerized brain-fitness program

June 25, 2013
UCLA researchers have found that older adults who regularly used a brain-fitness program on a computer demonstrated significantly improved memory and language skills.

Recommended for you

Animal study connects fear behavior, rhythmic breathing, brain smell center

April 20, 2018
"Take a deep breath" is the mantra of every anxiety-reducing advice list ever written. And for good reason. There's increasing physiological evidence connecting breathing patterns with the brain regions that control mood ...

When there's an audience, people's performance improves

April 20, 2018
Often, people think performing in front of others will make them mess up, but a new study led by a Johns Hopkins University neuroscientist found the opposite: being watched makes people do better.

Mechanism behind neuron death in motor neurone disease and frontotemporal dementia discovered

April 20, 2018
Scientists have identified the molecular mechanism that leads to the death of neurons in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as ALS or motor neurone disease) and a common form of frontotemporal dementia.

Signaling between neuron types found to instigate morphological changes during early neocortex development

April 20, 2018
A team of researchers from several institutions in Japan has found that developing neocortex neurons in mammals undergo a morphological transition from a multipolar shape to a bipolar shape due at least partially to signaling ...

MRI technique detects spinal cord changes in MS patients

April 20, 2018
A Vanderbilt University Medical Center-led research team has shown that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can detect changes in resting-state spinal cord function in patients with multiple sclerosis (MS).

Gene variant increases empathy-driven fear in mice

April 20, 2018
Researchers at the Center for Cognition and Sociality, within the Institute for Basic Science (IBS), have just published as study in Neuron reporting a genetic variant that controls and increases empathy-driven fear in mice. ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.