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Physically Active Older Adults have better Brain White Matter Integrity

Update Date: Sep 17, 2014 02:09 PM EDT

Researchers have found that as people age, the communication between regions in their brains becomes jeopardized. In a new study, researchers examined the relationship between the brain's white-matter integrity and fitness levels. The team found that older adults who were more physically active had better white matter tract integrity.

"To our knowledge, this is the first study of its kind that uses an objective measure of physical activity along with multiple measures of brain structure," said University of Illinois postdoctoral researcher Agnieszka Burzynska, who conducted the research with U. of I. Beckman Institute director Arthur Kramer and kinesiology and community health professor Edward McAuley.

For this study, the researchers recruited 88 adults between the ages of 60 and 78 who were considered to be healthy but "low-fit." The participants were instructed to wear accelerometers each time they walked for one week. The researchers also took two different kinds of images of their brains. The first one looked at the structural integrity of a tissue via diffusion tensor imaging and the second one examined any changes in white matter, called lesions that were related to aging.

Overall, around 95 percent of the participants aged 65 and older had white matter lesions. Even though lesions are normal in aging people, the researchers found differences in the abundance of lesions between people who were physically active and people whom were not. The adults who exercised moderately-to-vigorously had fewer lesions.

In adults who exercised lightly, they had greater structural integrity in the white-matter tracts located at the temporal lobes. This region has been tied to memory, language, and visual and auditory information processing. In older adults who spent more time sitting, they had lower structural integrity in the white matter tracts tied to the hippocampus, which is the region of the brain linked to learning and memory.

"This relationship between the integrity of tracts connecting the hippocampus and sedentariness is significant even when we control for age, gender and aerobic fitness. It suggests that the physiological effect of sitting too much, even if you still exercise at the end of the day for half an hour, will have a detrimental effect on your brain," Burzynska said according to the press release. "We hope that this will encourage people to take better care of their brains by being more active."

The study was published in the journal, PLOS ONE.

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