Keeping physically fit and having more flexible arteries may be keys to slower brain aging, says a study from Australia's Swinburne's Center for Human Psychopharmacology.
"Exactly why this occurs is unclear, but research indicates that exercise and physical fitness are protective," said lead author Greg Kennedy. "A healthier, more elastic aorta is also theorized to protect cognitive function, by reducing the negative effects of excessive blood pressure on the brain."
Kennedy says that from early adulthood, memory and other features of cognition slowly decline, and the risk of dementia rises with age.
His study investigated whether fitness was associated with better cognition through a healthier aorta. Participants were between the ages of 60 and 90 people (73 females and 29 males who were living independently in aged-care communities in Melbourne).
Their fitness was assessed with the Six-Minute Walk test which involved participants walking back and forth between two markers placed 10 meters apart for six minutes. The stiffness of their arteries was assessed along with their cognitive performance.
Only participants who completed the full six minutes were included in the analysis, which assessed the stiffness of their arteries and cognitive performance.
Although the study didn't find that physical fitness had a direct effect on the stiffness of arteries, Kennedy said that long-term fitness may be a better predictor.
"People generally are less fit and have stiffer arteries as they age, which seems to explain the difference in memory ability that is usually attributed to 'getting older,'" Kennedy says.
"Unfortunately, there is currently no effective pharmacological intervention that has proven effective in the long term in reducing this decline or staving off dementia," he said.
"The results of this study indicate that remaining as physically fit as possible, and monitoring central arterial health, may well be an important, cost effective way to maintain our memory and other brain functions in older age."
The study is scheduled to be published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.
Although the study didn't find that short-term physical fitness made arteries more flexible, a recent animal study published in American Journal of Physiology — Heart and Circulatory Physiology found that minoxidil, which is sold to treat hair loss under the brand name Rogaine, makes stiff vessels more flexible and improves blood flow to vital organs like the brain.
"Minoxidil not only lowered blood pressure, but also increased arterial diameter and restored carotid and cerebral blood flow," said the study's co-author Dr. Michael "Mish" Shoykhet. "Minoxidil also reduced functional arterial stiffness and increased arterial elastin content.
"Equally important, these beneficial changes persisted weeks after the drug was no longer in the bloodstream. The sustained improvements and the increased elastin gene expression suggest that minoxidil treatment may help remodel stiff arteries. Such remodeling may benefit humans whose elastin insufficiency is due to either advanced age or genetic conditions," he said.
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