Older, Fitter Adults Experience Greater Brain Activity While Learning

Summary: Older adults with high cardiorespiratory fitness scored performed better on memory tests than those with lower scores, a new study reports.

Source: Boston University Medical Center.

Older adults who experience good cardiac fitness may be also keeping their brains in good shape as well.

In what is believed to be the first study of its kind, older adults who scored high on cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF) tests performed better on memory tasks than those who had low CRF. Further, the more fit older adults were, the more active their brain was during learning. These findings appear in the journal Cortex. Difficulty remembering new information represents one of the most common complaints in aging and decreased memory performance is one of the hallmark impairments in Alzheimer’s disease.

Healthy young (18-31 years) and older adults (55-74 years) with a wide range of fitness levels walked and jogged on a treadmill while researchers assessed their cardiorespiratory fitness by measuring the ratio of inhaled and exhaled oxygen and carbon dioxide. These participants also underwent MRI scans which collected images of their brain while they learned and remembered names that were associated with pictures of unfamiliar faces.

The researchers found that older adults, when compared to younger adults, had more difficulty learning and remembering the correct name that was associated with each face. Age differences in brain activation were observed during the learning of the face-name pairs, with older adults showing decreased brain activation in some regions and increased brain activation in others. However, the degree to which older adults demonstrated these age-related changes in memory performance and brain activity largely depended on their fitness level. In particular, high fit older adults showed better memory performance and increased brain activity patterns compared to their low fit peers. The increased brain activation in the high fit older adults was observed in brain regions that show typical age-related decline, suggesting fitness may contribute to brain maintenance. Higher fit older adults also had greater activation than young adults in some brain regions, suggesting that fitness may also serve a compensatory role in age-related memory and brain decline.

An old couple.
The researchers caution that maintaining high levels of fitness through physical activity will not entirely eliminate or cure age- or Alzheimer’s disease related decline, but it may slow down the decline. NeuroscienceNews.com image is for illustrative purposes only.

According to the researchers this study highlights that CRF is not only important for physical health, but is also associated with brain function and memory performance. “Importantly, CRF is a modifiable health factor that can be improved through regular engagement in moderate to vigorous sustained physical activity such as walking, jogging, swimming, or dancing. Therefore, starting an exercise program, regardless of one’s age, can not only contribute to the more obvious physical health factors, but may also contribute to memory performance and brain function,” explained corresponding author Scott Hayes, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine and the Associate Director of the Neuroimaging Research for Veterans Center at the VA Boston Healthcare System.

The researchers caution that maintaining high levels of fitness through physical activity will not entirely eliminate or cure age- or Alzheimer’s disease related decline, but it may slow down the decline. Future studies following individuals’ fitness and physical activity levels, memory, and brain function over the course of years would more directly address this issue.

About this memory research article

Funding: This work was supported by the Department of Veterans Affairs, Rehabilitation Research & Development Service [Career Development Award e7822w awarded to SMH] and the Clinical Science Research & Development Service [MV]. Assistance with participant recruitment was provided by the Massachusetts Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (P50-AG005134) and the Boston University Alzheimer’s Disease Center (P30-AG13846).

Source: Gina DiGravio – Boston University Medical Center
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Abstract for “FMRI activity during associative encoding is correlated with cardiorespiratory fitness and source memory performance in older adults” by Scott M. Hayes, Jasmeet P. Hayes, Victoria J. Williams, Huiting Liu, and Mieke Verfaellie in Cortex. Published online January 12 2017 doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2017.01.002

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]Boston University Medical Center “Older, Fitter Adults Experience Greater Brain Activity While Learning.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 12 January 2017.
<https://neurosciencenews.com/aging-fitness-brain-activity-learning-5937/>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]Boston University Medical Center (2017, January 12). Older, Fitter Adults Experience Greater Brain Activity While Learning. NeuroscienceNew. Retrieved January 12, 2017 from https://neurosciencenews.com/aging-fitness-brain-activity-learning-5937/[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]Boston University Medical Center “Older, Fitter Adults Experience Greater Brain Activity While Learning.” https://neurosciencenews.com/aging-fitness-brain-activity-learning-5937/ (accessed January 12, 2017).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


Abstract

FMRI activity during associative encoding is correlated with cardiorespiratory fitness and source memory performance in older adults

Older adults, relative to younger adults, exhibit age-related alterations in fMRI activity during associative encoding, which contributes to deficits in source memory. Yet, there are remarkable individual differences in brain health and memory performance among older adults. Cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF) is one individual difference factor that may attenuate brain aging, and thereby contribute to enhanced source memory in older adults. To examine this possibility, 26 older and 31 young adults completed a treadmill-based exercise test to evaluate CRF (peak VO2) and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to examine brain activation during a face-name associative encoding task. Our results indicated that in older adults, peak VO2 was positively associated with fMRI activity during associative encoding in multiple regions including bilateral prefrontal cortex, medial frontal cortex, bilateral thalamus and left hippocampus. Next, a conjunction analysis was conducted to assess whether CRF influenced age-related differences in fMRI activation. We classified older adults as high or low CRF and compared their activation to young adults. High CRF older adults showed fMRI activation more similar to young adults than low CRF older adults (i.e., reduced age-related differences) in multiple regions including thalamus, posterior and prefrontal cortex. Conversely, in other regions, primarily in prefrontal cortex, high CRF older adults, but not low CRF older adults, demonstrated greater activation than young adults (i.e., increased age-related differences). Further, fMRI activity in these brain regions was positively associated with source memory among older adults, with a mediation model demonstrating that associative encoding activation in medial frontal cortex indirectly influenced the relationship between peak VO2 and subsequent source memory performance. These results indicate that CRF may contribute to neuroplasticity among older adults, reducing age-related differences in some brain regions, consistent with the brain maintenance hypothesis, but accentuating age-differences in other regions, consistent with the brain compensation hypothesis.

“FMRI activity during associative encoding is correlated with cardiorespiratory fitness and source memory performance in older adults” by Scott M. Hayes, Jasmeet P. Hayes, Victoria J. Williams, Huiting Liu, and Mieke Verfaellie in Cortex. Published online January 12 2017 doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2017.01.002

Feel free to share this Neuroscience News.
Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive the latest neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email daily from NeuroscienceNews.com
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. We do not sell email addresses. You can cancel your subscription any time.