The present study examined whether aerobic fitness training of older humans can increase brain volume in regions associated with age-related decline in both brain structure and cognition.
Fifty-nine healthy but sedentary community-dwelling volunteers, aged 60-79 years, participated in the 6-month randomized clinical trial. Half of the older adults served in the aerobic training group, the other half of the older adults participated in the toning and stretching control group. Twenty young adults served as controls for the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and did not participate in the exercise intervention. High spatial resolution estimates of gray and white matter volume, derived from 3D spoiled gradient recalled acquisition MRI images, were collected before and after the 6-month fitness intervention. Estimates of maximal oxygen uptake (VO2) were also obtained.
Significant increases in brain volume, in both gray and white matter regions, were found as a function of fitness training for the older adults who participated in the aerobic fitness training but not for the older adults who participated in the stretching and toning (nonaerobic) control group. As predicted, no significant changes in either gray or white matter volume were detected for our younger participants.
These results suggest that cardiovascular fitness is associated with the sparing of brain tissue in aging humans. Furthermore, these results suggest a strong biological basis for the role of aerobic fitness in maintaining and enhancing central nervous system health and cognitive functioning in older adults.