For older adults, cognitive decline may seem inevitable. However, a study from the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois (UI) finds that higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness can lead to better brain function. The study focused on executive function—the brain’s ability to manage higher-level tasks like problem solving and working memory. The findings indicate that adults who maintain higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness are better able to maintain the function of key brain regions involved in executive function.
The researchers analyzed data from 128 adults, aged 59 to 80 years. The participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans and provided data about their fitness levels. The researchers also tested the participants’ abilities in dual-task performance (doing two tasks simultaneously) to measure their executive function skills.
The brain activity during dual-task performance was different from the brain activity during single-task performance. In dual-task performance, two brain regions were particularly active: the anterior cingulate cortex and the supplementary motor area (ACC/SMA)
“We analyzed areas of the brain that were activated while the participants were completing two tasks, and found that the ACC/SMA activation was associated with higher cardiorespiratory fitness. It’s an important area for higher level functions, such as conflict monitoring, multitasking, and dual-task processing itself,” stated first author of the study Chelsea Wong, M.D. and Ph.D. student at UI.
In short, the participants with the highest levels of cardiorespiratory fitness had the most brain activity in the ACC/SMA, and thus had the strongest executive function.
The study is the first to link cardiorespiratory fitness, brain function, and behavioral performance in older adults. The results suggest that staying fit is key to maintaining cognitive function with age.
This research is published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.
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