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Can Being “Out of Shape” Shrink your Brain?

Can Being “Out of Shape” Shrink your Brain?
April 06
11:05 2016
A new study published this month in the American Academy of Neurology’s online journal suggests that “letting yourself go” during your middle age years might result in a smaller brain 20 years later.

The study took place at the Boston University School of Medicine and involved 1,583 participants of which the average age was 40. No participants had heart disease or dementia. All participants took a treadmill test and underwent an MRI at the beginning of the study and again 20 years later.

After analyzing the results, researchers were surprised to find that exercise level at the time of the first test corresponded to brain mass at the time of the second test.

“We found a direct correlation in our study between poor fitness and brain volume decades later, which indicates accelerated brain aging,” remarks Nicole Spartano, PhD, author of the study.

Exercise capacity was determined by the treadmill test. For every 8 units lower a participant performed on the test, their brain volume 20 years later was smaller – equivalent to about 2 years of accelerated brain aging.

When participants who had developed heart disease were excluded, researchers found that every 8 units of weaker physicality corresponded to a reduction in brain volume equal to about 1 year of accelerated brain aging.

The study also found that participants whose heart rate and blood pressure increased at a higher rate during the initial treadmill test were likely to have a smaller brain 20 years later. Spartano notes that individuals with poor physical health typically have a more pronounced reaction to exercise (in regards to blood pressure and heart rate) than do people who are in better shape.

Keep in mind this study is purely observational and does not prove that poor fitness will decrease brain mass. However, it does show an interesting association that necessitates further study.

“While not yet studied on a large scale, these results suggest that fitness in middle age may be particularly important for the many millions of people around the world who already have evidence of heart disease,” Spartano concludes.


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April Kuhlman

April Kuhlman

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