Cardio exercise in your 20s could benefit your brain in your 40s

Cardio exercise in your 20s could benefit your brain in your 40s

Cardio exercise in your 20s could benefit your brain in your 40s

Ask any runner and she will tell you that running helps clear your mind and that the oxygen feeding your brain gives you that clear focus. A new study shows that regularly engaging in cardio exercise in young adulthood could potentially protect your memory and cognitive health decades down the road.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis found that better cardiac fitness in young adults translated to better brain fitness 25 years later, adding to a growing body of evidence that links heart health with mental functioning. The findings were published on April 2nd, 2014 in the journal Neurology.

“Many studies show the benefits to the brain of good heart health,” said David R. Jacobs, Jr, Ph.D., of the University of Minnesota, who designed and led the study. “This is one more important study that should remind young adults of the brain health benefits of cardio fitness activities such as running, swimming, biking or cardio fitness classes.”

Researchers examined the association between cardiovascular fitness and performance on cognitive tests in 2,747 healthy men and women over a 25-year period. The participants were recruited in 1985, when they were all between 18 and 30 years old.

In 1985, all participants did a short treadmill test to assess their fitness. The researchers recorded how long each person could maintain running at their top speed.

There were seven follow-up checks over the next 25 years. At the last one, in 2010, researchers tested the participants’ mental functioning, including verbal memory, psycho-motor speed, and executive function.

In general, people who were more fit at the beginning of the study were more likely to have higher education, to smoke less, to be active more often and to have healthy blood pressure and lower cholesterol than people who were less fit.

Researchers did find an association between increased performance on the cardiovascular fitness test in young adulthood and improved memory in middle age. For every extra minute a person was able to stay on the treadmill during the first treadmill test, the better they performed on the cognitive test in middle age. Plus, for people who had smaller differences in the time they lasted on the treadmill from young adulthood to middle age, their performances on the cognitive tests in middle age were better, compared with people who had bigger differences.

It fits in with other research, including another recent study that showed young adults who have better heart health, as measured by blood pressure, have better thinking skills in middle age than those with high blood pressure. That study, done by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco also used three tests of memory and thinking and it also accounted for weight, sex, drinking, smoking and education.

It is possible that exercising more at an early age simply lowers blood pressure, which then lowers the risk for cognitive decline and dementia, but the researchers took differences in blood pressure into account, Jacobs said, and the results held.

“My interpretation is that something about being more fit, or just doing better on the specific treadmill test that we included, has a connection to better thinking skills,” he said.

There is more going on than just exercise, Jacobs says. “Just moving around — being engaged in family and life as opposed to sitting down and watching TV and pretty much not doing anything, they are going to preserve brain function. This is really about engagement in life,” he said.