Good fitness keeps your brain young

Last update: November 28, 2022
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Reading time: 3 minutes
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By BrainMatters

Everyone is getting older. And so is the brain, which is reflected in the health of our brains. Many people experience dementia as they age, for which a real cure has not yet been discovered. Nevertheless, research indicates that we can do something to lower the risk of age-related symptoms: make sure our bodies are healthy and fit. Two former authors of Brain Matters found this interesting and both dedicated an article to it in 2015. In this article, you will find the information from these old articles combined. 

The Default Mode Network

When you are not doing much, the brain is anything but quiet. A large network of brain regions called the Default Mode Network (DM network) shows plenty of activity during times like these. However, previous research has shown that people with dementia show less activity in this network. Perhaps preventing these abnormalities is the key to a healthy brain.

A group of American researchers took on the challenge of finding an answer to the question of how to keep the DM network in the brain healthy. A lot of data was collected from 30 elderly participants. For example, the scientists looked at how healthy the elderly's heart and heart muscles were, all participants went through a physical fitness test and fMRI was used to map the blood supply to the DM network.

With some statistical trickery, it was discovered that a healthy heart and fitness are incredibly important predictors of a healthy blood supply to the DM network. In other words, the participants who were the fittest and had the healthiest hearts showed the most healthy activation of the DM network in the scanner!

Better fitness

So fitness appears to be very important judging from the research described above. But exactly what form of exercise is best? Strength training, or perhaps cardio? That is what a group of American brain scientists wondered. Their research sense was sparked by the fact that not everyone who exercises regularly actually notices an effect of this in their brain. Therefore, the researchers hypothesized that exercise by itself is not enough: there must be an improvement in fitness. After all, good fitness ensures that your body can transport oxygen to muscles quickly, and your muscles can absorb this oxygen quickly. And good oxygen transport could also have positive effects on the brain, exactly as the initial research suggests. 

To chart the aging of the brain, the scientists looked at the communication between brain regions. In fact, this communication appears to decrease as we age, thus giving a nice indication of how the brain is doing.

FMRI scans were made of elderly people (average age 65) and young people (average age 22). Based on these scans, communication between brain regions was studied. In the elderly, physical activity was measured using a band that the elderly wore for five days. This band measured how much physical activity the seniors had per day. Fitness was determined by measuring the maximum oxygen uptake of the elderly when they exerted maximum effort during exercise on a treadmill. The more oxygen they could absorb, the better their fitness.

First, as expected, it was found that the brains of the young showed more internal communication than those of the elderly. But compared with the elderly who were in worse shape, those in good shape showed much less decline in neural communication. Remarkably, these findings appeared to be independent of the degree of physical activity! In particular, the temporal and prefrontal cortices were protected from deterioration in elderly people with good fitness.

Thus, improving your fitness not only ensures a fit body but also a young brain! Could individual fitness training be a prevention for Alzheimer's (a form of dementia)? Future research will have to show! 

Author: This article is based on old published brain matters articles written by Sander van Bree: Sports against dementia & Iris van Sambeek: Good fitness keeps your brain young (2015) - Editor: Loes Beckers

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