Running in Twenties Kept Brain Sharp Later

Cardiorespiratory fitness activities as a young adult may maintain thinking skills in middle age

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) While running and other types of cardio exercises are certainly good for the heart, these activities may help the mind as well and even provide a brainpower payoff later in life.

For years, studies have been indicating a beneficial relationship between exercise and cognitive health.

Recent research adds to this mounting evidence, finding that those in their twenties who regularly pursue cardiorespiratory fitness may have better mental function 25 years later.

"Exercise regularly to boost both heart and mental health."

David R. Jacobs, PhD, a professor in Division of Epidemiology and Community Health at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, collaborated on a review of information on 2,747 people who participated in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults Study.

The research included black and white men and women, with an average age of 25 at the time of recruitment.

In the first year of the investigation, the researchers gauged cardiorespiratory fitness of participants by maximum duration on the treadmill. They repeated this test 20 years later.

Then, about 25 years after the start of the research, the subjects’ mental powers were evaluated. These mental powers included verbal memory, psychomotor speed (the relationship between thinking skills and physical movement) and executive function (mental processes used to plan, organize, strategize, remember details and manage time and space).

Dr. Jacobs and team found that the higher an individual’s cardiorespiratory fitness was at the average age of 25, the better they scored on cognitive function tests 25 years later.

Similar to a cardiovascular stress test, the treadmill test for this study required patients to run or walk until they could no longer go on or they ran out of breath. Throughout the test, treadmill speed and incline edged up.

On average, participants at the beginning of the study lasted about 10 minutes on the treadmill. By year 20, however, that number dropped to 7.1 minutes.

The researchers observed that every additional minute completed on the treadmill during the first year corresponded to a rise in mental performance 25 years later. Each of those extra treadmill minutes on average equaled a correct recall of 0.12 more words out of 15 on the memory exam and a correct replacement of 0.92 more numbers with meaningless symbols in a test of psychomotor speed, even after accounting for factors such as smoking, diabetes and high cholesterol.

Smaller decreases in cardiorespiratory fitness over 20 years were linked with better executive performance function compared to bigger drops in cardio performance. Executive function was measured by an ink-color identification quiz, with words such as “yellow” written in green ink. A correct answer for this example is green.

"This is one more important study that should remind young adults of the brain health benefits of cardio fitness activities such as running, swimming, biking or cardio fitness classes,” said Dr. Jacobs in a press release.

He added that the mental tests used for this study are reliable for predicting the development of dementia in the future.

"These findings are likely to help us earlier identify and consequently prevent or treat those at high risk of developing dementia,” Dr. Jacobs said.

"We’ve known for years the benefits of exercise on cognitive processes," said Rusty Gregory, a personal trainer and wellness coach in Austin, Texas and a dailyRx Contributing Expert.

"Not only does exercise increase the size of the hippocampus but it also helps burn off glucose in the body that might otherwise bind (glycation) with proteins and create free radicals and inflammation leading to actual brain shrinkage. This can also be avoided by reducing the amount of sugar consumed," Gregory said.

This study was published online in April in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

The Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) Study was supported by funding from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the Intramural Research Program of the National Institute on Aging.

Review Date: 
April 9, 2014
Last Updated:
April 10, 2014