Results from the CARDIA (Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults) study were presented at the 2013 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference. The study found a connection between the exercise habits of young adults and their cognitive functioning in middle age. In particular, young adults who performed little or no exercise saw greater declines in aspects of cognition such as executive function and processing speed.

The researchers used a longitudinal study to follow 3,375 adults, aged 18-30 at the study’s outset, from various metropolitan areas. Over the space of 25 years, participants completed at least three assessments regarding their levels of physical activity. Their cognitive skills were assessed using three tests: the Digit Symbol Substitution Test (DSST), the Stroop Interference Score, and the Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Test (RAVLT).

The tests uncovered a significant difference in cognitive function between people who had moderate or better levels of physical activity compared to those who had only limited activity or who were sedentary. In the DSST, 20.9% of people with low activity levels showed cognitive impairment, compared to only 14.9% of people with moderate or better levels of activity. In the Stroop test, 18.9% of the less active participants exhibited cognitive impairment, compared to 11.6% of the more active participants. There was no significant difference documented in the RAVLT.

CARDIA’s representative at the conference, Tina Hoang, stated of the research, “We didn’t see an association with verbal memory, but we think that these findings suggest that physical inactivity earlier in the life course may be a

ssociated with worse cognitive outcomes later in life.”

Researchers are not exactly sure what about limited exercise results in sharper cognitive decline, but other research has confirmed the risks of limited activity and the benefits of increased exercise. Exercise is also known to increase angiogenesis and neurogenesis, which could be one explanation for the results of this study. Researchers postulate that exercise may build a reserve for the brain to draw on during middle age.

The research team concluded that more long-term studies would be needed to fully understand the link between exercise and cognitive functioning.

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