Stroop-interference-related cortical activation patterns are shown above.

Physical fitness may do more than preserve a more youthful body; it may also impact the brain’s activity and function, preserving more youthful mental capabilities, according to findings published in NeuroImage (2015; doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.09.062).

University of Tsukuba researchers in Japan found that fitter older men performed better mentally than less fit older men, by solving problems in the same way younger brains would do.

Understanding these findings requires some background on typical brain activation patterns in the prefrontal cortex. The PFC is involved in executive functions, memory, intelligence, language and vision. Young people use the PFC’s left side for drawing on short-term memory, understanding word meanings
and recognizing familiar events, objects or people. For those matters, older adults use the equivalent aspect of the PFC’s right side. For issues involving temporary storage and manipulation of memory, long-term memories and inhibitory control, young adults use the PFC’s right side. In contrast, older adults use both sides. With aging, older adults tend to use both sides of the PFC during most mental tasks. Scientists believe this is a brain compensation that occurs when capacity and efficiency decline with age.

To identify the impact of physical fitness on age- related brain function changes, Japanese researchers measured the aerobic fitness of 60 older men and then used neuroimaging to examine brain activation pat- terns as the men performed a “Stroop task”—a task that challenged selective attention, executive function and reaction time. The fitter men performed more accurately and quickly and used parts of the brain typically used by younger people.

Lead study author Hidaki Soya, PhD, said in a University of Tsukuba news release, “One possible explanation suggested by the research is that the volume and integrity of the white matter in the part of brain that links the two sides decline with age. There is some evidence to support the theory that fitter adults are able to better maintain this white matter than less fit adults, but further study is needed to confirm this theory.”

Shirley Archer, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is an internationally acknowledged integrative health and mindfulness specialist, best-selling author of 16 fitness and wellness books translated into multiple languages and sold worldwide, award-winning health journalist, contributing editor to Fitness Journal, media spokesperson, and IDEA's 2008 Fitness Instructor of the Year. She's a 25-year industry veteran and former health and fitness educator at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who has served on multiple industry committees and co-authored trade books and manuals for ACE, ACSM and YMCA of the USA. She has appeared on TV worldwide and was a featured trainer on America's Next Top Model.

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