Exercise Now, Have a Sharper Mind When You’re Older

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Anshu Ajitsaria / Getty Images

A new study reveals why exercising when you're young can keep your brain sharp when you're old. According to the researchers at the University of Montreal, an active body could push pause on the process of age-related blood vessel hardening and in turn preserve brainpower.

Blood vessels naturally begin to harden around your 50s. Hardening starts in the aorta — the primary blood vessel coming out of the heart — and slowly works its way up toward the brain. Experts have long suspected this stiffening may have something to do with cognitive decline, but this is the first study to show a solid link using MRI scans. 

The researchers recruited a group of healthy young adults who were too young to have begun the blood vessel hardening process. They also gathered a group of 55- to 75-year-olds in good physical and mental shape. All the participants took a fitness test that worked them to exhaustion. Later, they took tests to assess their cognitive abilities while the researchers ran MRIs to assess brain activity, blood flow to the brain, and the physical condition of their aortas.


Not surprisingly, the younger people proved to be in better physical shape than the older folks. They also outperformed their elders on the mental tests. But the most telling find was that within the older group, those in superior physical condition did the best on the cognitive exam. 

The MRIs also showed the aortas of those who kept fit weren't as stiff as those of their counterparts who didn't exercise and were not as mentally sharp. The researchers concluded that blood vessel hardening is likely tied to a decline in brain function. "The theory is that blood vessel hardening leads to lesions in the brain's white matter," says lead study author Claudine Gauthier. The lesions show your brain cells aren't healthy enough to meet high cognitive demands. 

Of course, blood vessel hardening isn't the only factor impacting brain aging, but it may likely play a significant role, given that cardiovascular risk factors are also important risk factors for dementia, explains Gauthier.

Previous research has shown exercise is more beneficial when started earlier in life, Gauthier says. And delaying the vessel-hardening process through exercise, which could then preserve cognition, may be one of those perks

While cognitive aging is primarily genetic, it's also controlled by lifestyle, adds Dr. Gerald Fletcher, a spokesman for the American Heart Association. "Having a good cardio profile delays things such as blood vessel stiffening, whereas high blood pressure and high cholesterol can make arteries stiffen even more," he explains. "If you practice good cardiovascular health, you'll likely live longer and have better cognition later in life."

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