Stay Fit and Heart Healthy to Power Your Brain

Douglas Perry

Technology, Cycling, Swimming


Researchers from Swinburne's Centre for Human Psychopharmacology write in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease about the mechanisms underlying cognitive performance in older people living independently and it proves to be an interesting look at the long-term benefits of preventative exercise.


Lead author, PhD candidate Greg Kennedy, says that from early adulthood, memory and other aspects of cognition slowly decline, with an increased risk of developing into dementia in later life. Why this occurs is unclear but research shows that exercise and levels of fitness can be protective. Chief among the health markers is a more elastic aorta.



Atherosclerosis in the aorta is the hardening of the aorta over time because of the build-up of plaque and the eventual tightening of the flow of blood resulting in the threat of strokes and heart disease. Diet, genetics, and aging all contribute to the rate of hardening in the aorta. A hardened aorta is not curable but the processes that lead to it can be slowed by making healthier choices and remaining fit.


Meaning, in order to mitigate the impact of aging, you have to start early in life; if you're in your 20s it's not too early to think about what your body and mind are going to need in their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond. And if you are older it is never too late to make the effort to be fitter because you can slow down the effects of aging.


This study specifically investigated whether fitness was associated with better cognition through a healthier aorta. The physical fitness and arterial stiffness of one hundred and two people (73 females and 29 males), aged between 60 and 90 years, living independently in aged care communities, were studied. Their fitness was assessed with the six-minute walk test which involved participants walking back and forth between two markers placed 10m (32 feet) apart for six minutes.


Only participants who completed the full six minutes were included in the analysis, which assessed the stiffness of their arteries and cognitive performance. Both fitness and aortic stiffness independently predicted Spatial Working Memory (SWM - the ability to keep spatial information active in working memory over a short period of time) performance.


Additionally, in conjunction with BMI and sex, fitness and aortic stiffness seemed to indicate SWM, independent of the age of the subject. As a result, the research concluded greater fitness and lower aortic stiffness both independently predict better SWM in older people. The strong effect of age on cognitive performance is obviously influenced by fitness and aortic stiffness.


Stay Fit and Heart Healthy to Power Your Brain - Fitness, brain health, aging, cognitive ability, Atherosclerosis, Spatial Working Memory


"People generally are less fit and have stiffer arteries as they age, which seems to explain the difference in memory ability that is usually attributed to 'getting older'," Kennedy says. Interestingly, physical fitness did not seem to affect central arterial stiffness, however, Kennedy points out that only current fitness was assessed -- long-term fitness may be a better predictor of central arterial stiffness, however, this has yet to be investigated.


"Unfortunately, there is currently no effective pharmacological intervention that has proven effective in the long term in reducing this decline or staving off dementia," Kennedy says.

"The results of this study indicate that remaining as physically fit as possible, and monitoring central arterial health, may well be an important, cost-effective way to maintain our memory and other brain functions in older age."



1. Greg Kennedy, Denny Meyer, Roy J. Hardman, Helen Macpherson, Andrew B. Scholey, Andrew Pipingas. Physical Fitness and Aortic Stiffness Explain the Reduced Cognitive Performance Associated with Increasing Age in Older People. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, 2018; 63 (4): 1307

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