TORONTO — Carving out healthy exercise habits in your twenties could pay off for decades: a new study suggests that how fit you are in your youth could be a tell-tale sign of how sharp your thinking skills will be later on in life.
U.S. researchers say that young adults who take up regular cardio workouts preserve their memory into middle age better than their couch potato counterparts.
“Many studies show the benefits to the brain of good heart health. This is one more important study that should remind young adults of the brain health benefits of cardio fitness activities, such as running, swimming, biking or cardio fitness classes,” study author Dr. David Jacobs said.
He’s a researcher at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.
The study dates back to 1985. Jacobs and his team looked at about 2,800 healthy people — from Minnesota, Alabama, Illinois and as far as California — who were at an average age of 25 years old. In the first and twentieth years of the study, the group ran on a treadmill for as long as they could until they couldn’t keep up with the speed or incline.
Tests for verbal memory, psychomotor speed and brain function were also taken 25 years after the start of the study.
In their twenties, participants typically lasted about 10 minutes on the treadmill — 20 years later, they couldn’t make it past three minutes.
But for every additional minute participants kept up on the treadmill, they fared better on the memory tests. In other words, even if age wasn’t on your side, if you stayed physically fit, your brain kept sharp, too.
(Middle aged in this study was defined as 43 to 55 years old.)
Those who were fit in their 20s even tended to have healthy habits in other aspects of life: they weighed less, ate healthier, didn’t smoke, watched less TV and exercised more.
Jacobs told NBC News that peoples’ brains may age better if they exercise more because the brain receives more oxygen. Exercise also maintains mitochondrial function, which boosts energy to the brain, he said.
“Other studies in older individuals have shown that these tests are among the strongest predictors of developing dementia in the future,” Jacobs said.
“One study showed that every additional word remembered on the memory test was associated with an 18 per cent decrease in the risk of developing dementia after 10 years.”