Mental Health Disorders

Aerobic Exercise Boosts Cognitive Function

A new study from University of Montreal researchers finds that aerobic exercise may not only improve cardiovascular health, but boost cognitive function later in life.  

A team of investigators led by Claudine Gauthier, PhD, worked with 31 individuals between the ages of 18 and 30, and a group of 54 participants aged 55 to 75. The researchers compared the older adults within their own peer group, and against the younger group as well. None of the participants had physical or mental health issues that may influence the study’s outcome, according to the authors.

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Subjects’ fitness was tested by placing them on workout machines and determining their maximum oxygen intake over a 30-second period. Cognitive abilities were assessed using the Stroop task, a scientifically validated test that asks individuals to identify the ink color of a color word that is printed in a different color. For example, the word red would be printed in blue, but the correct answer would still be “red.” In this test, one who is able to correctly name the color of the word without being distracted by the reflex to read it is determined to have greater cognitive ability. Participants underwent 3 MRI scans as well; to evaluate blood flow to the brain, to measure brain activity during the Stroop task, and to examine the physical state of the aorta.

Results showed age-related decline in executive function, aortic elasticity, and cardiorespiratory fitness, a connection between vascular health, and a positive association between aerobic fitness and brain function, according to the authors.

Given the finding that older adults whose aortas were in better condition and greater aerobic fitness performed better on cognitive tests, the authors believe the preservation of vessel elasticity may be among the mechanisms that allow exercise to decelerate cognitive aging.   

These findings are consistent with those of past studies, and “are compatible with the theory that regular exercise helps to preserve cognition,” says Gauthier, who is now a post-doctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany.

The results “also seem to indicate that a healthier vascular system also helps preserve cognition,” she adds. “Therefore, patients should do regular aerobic exercise and follow guidelines to preserve cardiac health. What's good for the heart is good for the brain.”

—Mark McGraw


Gauthier C, Lefort M, et al. Hearts and minds: linking vascular rigidity and aerobic fitness with cognitive aging. Neurobiology of Aging. 2014.