Exercise Now, Reap the Cognitive Rewards Later

New study finds active young adults retain memory better than the inactive at 50

The list of benefits that come with regular exercise is seemingly endless. We’ve known for quite a while that a regular fitness routine is integral to long term health and wellness. Avoiding obesity, heart disease and diabetes are just a few of the potential benefits.

Recently, we learned that regular exercise, started at any age, could reduce a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer.

NPR has even more good news for active 20-somethings, or those who were active in early adulthood. According to a study published in the journal “Neurology,” regular exercise during early adulthood may preserve memory and cognition later in life.

The study that led to this discovery was originally intended to access heart health risks. Researchers followed 2,700 men and women for 25 years and found that the group who did better on treadmill tests in their youth tended to do better on cognitive tests when they were middle aged. These results remained constant even when they accounted for unhealthy aspects in their subjects, like those who smoked, had diabetes or had high cholesterol.

This study was the first to track how physical fitness early in life affects the brain later on. But despite finding the correlation, researchers can't pinpoint the exact reason. The leading theory is that frequent exercise makes for a stronger heart, which is better at getting blood and oxygen to the brain.

Although better cognitive scores correlated with increased exercise, the margin wasn’t overwhelming. David Jacobs, one of the researchers behind the study, told NPR that even the smallest advantage could give people an edge in their careers and lead to a happier life.

If you weren’t a star athlete in your younger years, there are still benefits to beginning a fitness routine at any age. Jacobs recognizes that most people don’t live a perfectly healthy life and that some exercise at any age is better than none at all.

It will be interesting to see if the study continues on into the cognitive abilities of these men and women at age 70 or 80. The current findings are a good sign and yet another incentive to get moving whenever you can. 

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