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Cardiovascular Fitness May Help Cognitive Function


Good cardiovascular health may help preserve memory and thinking skills into middle age, according to the results of a new study.

Good cardiovascular health may help preserve memory and thinking skills into middle age, according to the results of a new study.

“The brain health of young adults shows benefits from cardio fitness activities. Interestingly, for those who currently have low fitness, even activities at moderate intensity are likely to be beneficial. For couch potatoes, it’s just getting moving,” David R. Jacobs, Jr, PhD, Professor, School of Public Health, Division of Epidemiology & Community Health at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, told ConsultantLive.

“The brain, like all organs, is highly vascularized,” he said. “Factors that affect the health of the vascular system are likely to affect the health of the brain. There is substantial evidence that many cardiovascular disease risk factors also reduce chronic low grade inflammatory conditions.”

For the study, more than 2700 healthy persons, average age 25 years, underwent treadmill tests in the first year and then again 20 years later. Cognitive tests conducted 25 years after the start of the study measured verbal memory, psychomotor speed (the relationship between thinking skills and physical movement), and executive function. Persons who had smaller decreases in their time completed on the treadmill test 20 years later were more likely to perform better on the executive function test than those who had bigger decreases.

“Of course, the executive function, memory skill, and speed of processing that we studied in relation to treadmill test–based fitness are not the same as real life situations,” said Dr Jacobs. “However, the standardized testing is useful and can be considered to represent ‘thinking skills.’ Other studies in older individuals have shown that these tests are among the strongest predictors of developing dementia in the future.”

Dr Jacobs noted that many chronic diseases have their roots many years before clinical manifestation. “It is logical that people who experience mild losses of cognitive function are at risk for dementia,” he said. “This has been shown at older ages. However, we do not know whether the ‘thinking skills’ that we measured will lead to the more severe manifestations that are devastating our elderly population.”

He continued: “It will take further follow-up over another 10 to 20 years to discover empirically whether the cognitive losses that we measured are in fact a risk for dementia. At minimum, I speculate that people who suffer less ‘thinking skill’ in middle age do not function as effectively in society as people who remain sharp.”

The study pointed out how middle age (defined as age 43 to 55 years) and elderly chronic disease in the brain may have roots in lifestyle behaviors during youth. Dr Jacobs noted that the current study does not address whether improving fitness would reduce the loss of cognitive function.

“Fitness performance on a symptom-limited treadmill test is dependent on many factors, including vigorous activity, musculoskeletal health, general robustness, smoking, adiposity, and social participation,” said Dr Jacobs. “This is not the same as a group activity that requires exercising or just moving around. However, encouraging patients to exercise and in general to maintain an active, engaged lifestyle may help forestall cognitive loss, among other benefits.”

The researchers published their results online on April 2, 2014 in the journal Neurology.

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