It should be no secret by now that your mental fitness is determined by your physical fitness. But if how exactly this works is still a mystery to you, you’re not alone. We’ve had clues thanks to neuroimaging studies in which activity in different parts of the brain can be seen but we haven’t been able to link the two definitively. Until now.
A 2015 study by Dr. Hideaki Soya and his colleagues from the University of Tsukuba in Japan, has shown a direct relationship between brain activity, brain function and physical fitness in a group of older Japanese men. The results saw fitter men performing better mentally than unfit men by activating part of their brains in the same way they did as youths.
As we get older, we use different parts of our brains. When we are younger, we mainly use the left side of our prefrontal cortex (PFC) for mental tasks involving short term memory, understanding the meaning of words and the ability to recognize previously encountered events, objects, or people. When older, we tend to use the equivalent parts of our PFC on the right side of the brain for these tasks. The PFC is found at the front of the brain, behind the forehead, and plays a big part in executive function, memory, intelligence, language and vision.
When it comes to performing tasks that involve temporary storage and manipulation of memory, long term memories and inhibitory control, young adults use the right side of the PFC while older adults use both sides. Older adults use both sides because as we age, the brain reorganizes itself to compensate for reduced capacity and efficiency due to age related structural and physiological decline.
In the study, men over 60 (64-75 years), underwent testing to determine their level of physical fitness. Then they took on a test to measure their selective attention, executive function and reaction time. The test used was the Stroop test which involved showing the men words meaning colour, such as blue, green, red, but asking them to name the colour of the letters rather than read the word itself. Activity in the PFC was determined by using a neuroimaging technique called functional near infrared spectroscopy or fNIRS. The results were combined and statistically analysed to determine associations between aerobic fitness, reaction time and brain activity.
Analysis of the relationship between brain activity and reaction time during the Stroop test found that the men who favoured the left side of their PFC while performing the test had better reactions times. The next analysis was of level of fitness and Stroop reaction time. The results indicated that fitter men had a shorter reaction time.
Based on these results, researchers have concluded that higher levels of fitness are associated with high left-PFC activity. The fitter men used the more youthful sides of their brains. But how? Professor Soya says “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 declines 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.”
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Do you think being physically fit can help your brain stay younger?