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If we’re to believe a recent study, exercising to improve cardiovascular strength may help to protect people from cognitive impairment. As we get older, our body’s arteries tend to stiffen, which is believed to start in the aorta, the main vessel coming out of the heart, before it reaches the brain. Indeed, the hardening could contribute to cognitive changes that occur during a similar time frame. The researchers in the study found that older adults whose aortas were in a better condition and had greater aerobic fitness performed better on a cognitive test. Therefore, the researchers think that the preservation of vessel elasticity may be one of the mechanisms that enables exercise to slow cognitive aging.
The researchers worked with 31 young people between the ages of 18 and 30, and 54 older participants aged between 55 and 75. This enabled the team to compare the older participants within their peer group and against the younger group, who obviously haven’t begun the aging processes. None of the participants had physical or mental health issues that might influence the study’s outcome. Their fitness was tested by exhausting the participants on a workout machine and then determining their maximum oxygen intake over a 30-second period. Their cognitive abilities were assessed with the Stroop task, a scientifically validated test that involves asking somebody to identify the ink colour of a colour work that is printed in a different colour (for instance, the word “red” printed in blue in ink, where the correct answer would be blue). Somebody who can correctly name the colour of the word without being tricked by the word has greater cognitive ability.
The participants then undertook three MRI scans: one to evaluate the blood flow to the brain, one to measure their brain activity as they performed the Stroop task, and one to actually look at the physical state of their arta. The researchers were interested in the brain’s blood flow, as poorer cardiovascular health is associated with a faster pulse wave, at each heartbeat, which in turn could cause damage to the brain’s smaller blood vessels. This is the first study to use MRI to examine participants in this way, and enabled the researchers to find even the most subtle effects, which in turn suggests that other researchers could adapt our test to study vascular-cognitive associations within less healthy and clinical populations. The results revealed age-related declines in executive function, aortic elasticity and cardiorespiratory fitness, a link between vascular health and brain function and a positive association between aerobic fitness and brain function. Although the impact of fitness on cerebral vasculature may involve other, more complex mechanisms, these results support the hypothesis that lifestlye helps maintain the elasticity of arteries, which in turn prevents downstream cerebrovascular damage and helps preserve cognitive abilities later in life.