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Aug 25, 2014 04:18 AM EDT

Exercise Enhances Cardiovascular Health and Protects Against Cognitive Impairment As We Age, Study

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Exercise not only improves cardiovascular strength, but also protects against cognitive impairment as we age, according to a new study by the University of Montreal and its affiliated Institut universitaire de gératrie de Montréal Research Centre.

The researchers said that poor cardiovascular health triggers faster pulse wave at each heartbeat, which in turn could cause damage to the brain's smaller blood vessels.

"Our body's arteries stiffen with age, and the vessel hardening is believed to begin in the aorta, the main vessel coming out of the heart, before reaching the brain. Indeed, the hardening may contribute to cognitive changes that occur during a similar time FRAME," said Researcher Claudine Gauthier, first author of the study, in a press release.

Gauthier said that older adults with greater aerobic fitness whose aortas were in a better condition performed well on cognitive tests. "We therefore think that the preservation of vessel elasticity may be one of the mechanisms that enables exercise to slow cognitive aging."

For the study, the researchers examined the impact of physical activity amomg 31 young people aged between 18-30 years and 54 older participants aged between 55-75 years. None of the participants suffered any physical or mental health issues that might sway the study outcome.

The researchers measured participants' fitness levels and determined their maximum oxygen intake over a 30 second period through a workout machine. Their cognitive abilities were assessed with the Stroop task.

The participants then underwent three MRI scans to assess the blood flow to the brain, to measure their brain activity during the Stroop task and to find out about the physical state of their aortas.

The researchers found age-related declines in executive function, aortic elasticity and cardiorespiratory fitness, a bond between vascular health and brain function, and a positive relationship between aerobic fitness and brain function.

"The link between fitness and brain function may be mediated through preserved cerebrovascular reactivity in periventricular watershed areas that are also associated with cardiorespiratory fitness," Gauthier said.

"Although the impact of fitness on cerebral vasculature may however involve other, more complex mechanisms, overall these results support the hypothesis that lifestyle helps maintain the elasticity of arteries, thereby preventing downstream cerebrovascular damage and resulting in preserved cognitive abilities in later life."

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