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Aviva Sinay
Aviva Sinay

Does Lack of Exercise Cause Your Brain to Shrink As You Age?

According to research published in a recent edition of Neurology, the amount of exercise you do during middle age can have a significant effect on the size of your brain in later life.
The study, which was carried out by Boston University School of Medicine, and published in the February 10th edition of the online journal, found an association between lack of fitness in middle age and brain volume twenty years later. Study author, Nicole Spartano concluded that this finding indicated that the brain was aging at a faster rate than normal.

The study comprised 1,583 people who signed up for the Framingham Heart Study. Their average age was 40, and none of the participants had previously been diagnosed with dementia or heart disease. At the start of the study the participants took part in a treadmill test, which was repeated two decades later, together with MRI scans. The results from the participants who had developed heart disease or prescribed beta blockers since the initial testing, a total of 1,094 people, were analysed separately as a second group.

Researchers estimated the average exercise capacity, of participants according to how long they lasted on the treadmill

From their analysis, the researchers estimated the average exercise capacity, or peak VO2, of the participants according to how long they lasted on the treadmill before their heart rate reached a determined level. They found that for every 8 units lower in treadmill performance, brain volume decreased at a rate which was equivalent to two years of accelerated brain aging. By excluding the participants in the second group, they found that while there was still a reduction in brain volume in those people who exercised less, this was only equivalent to one years of accelerated brain aging.

The researchers also found that the participants whose blood pressure and heart rate increased at a higher rate during the initial treadmill test, were more likely to have a smaller brain volume 20 years later. This was probably due to the fact that the blood pressure and heart rate of unfit people are likely to rise more quickly than those of people who exercise regularly.
However, the researchers were quick to point out that the study does not prove that lack of fitness during middle age causes a reduction in brain volume, simply that it shows an association between the two.

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