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A Strong Heart can Protect the Brain, Study Reports

Update Date: Aug 25, 2014 04:43 PM EDT

Physical and mental health are linked to one another. In a new study, researchers analyzed the link between cardiovascular strength and brain health. The team from the University of Montreal and its affiliated Institut universitaire de gératrie de Montréal Research Centre reported that taking care of one's heart can help protect the brain from cognitive impairment.

For this study, the researchers recruited 31 people aged 18 to 30 and 54 people aged 55 to 75. None of the participants had any physical or mental health conditions. The participants' fitness levels were recorded using a workout machine. The researchers measured their maximum oxygen intake within 30 seconds. The participants' mental health was assessed with a Stroop task. The Stroop task used color words that were printed in varying colors. Participants had to identify the color that the word is printed in as opposed to the color that the word represents. For example, participants would be presented with the word green that is printed in the color yellow. The correct answer would be yellow.

The researchers also took three MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans. The first one observed the blood flow to the brain, the second one analyzed brain activity as the participants performed the Stroop task, and the last one assessed the physical health of the aorta.

"This is first study to use MRI to examine participants in this way," first author of the study Claudine Gauthier said. "It enabled us to find even subtle effects in this healthy population, which suggests that other researchers could adapt our test to study vascular-cognitive associations within less healthy and clinical populations."

The researchers found a link between vascular health and brain function. They reported that increased levels of aerobic fitness were positively tied to brain health.

"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," Gauthier added, according to the press release. We found that older adults whose aortas were in a better condition and who had greater aerobic fitness performed better on a cognitive test. We therefore think that the preservation of vessel elasticity may be one of the mechanisms that enables exercise to slow cognitive aging."

The study was published in the Neurobiology of Aging.

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