Being physically fit has often been associated with a corresponding mental fitness. This correlation becomes especially noticeable as people grow older. Yet what exactly is the connection between keeping the body active, and a youthfulness of mind? New research using the power of neuroimaging technology is providing insight into how activity in different parts of the brain is linked to physical activity.
Japanese researchers are currently working to show how there is a direct relationship between mental performance and physical fitness in older Japanese men. Results show that for senior men who keep their bodies in good physical condition, mental performance is higher than for men who are in poorer physical condition. In fact, images of physically fit aging men show that they use parts of their brain in the same manner as younger people do.
When the human brain ages, different parts of it are used than when we were younger. For instance, young people will use the left side of the prefrontal cortex to complete tasks that require short-term memory, like remembering word meanings or recognizing people, objects, and events experienced in the past. For older people, however, these types of mental functions shift over to the right side of the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex, located just behind the forehead, is the part of the brain involved in memory, intelligence, language processing, and visual perception.
Younger people will favor the right side of the prefrontal cortex when performing mental actions that draw upon the long term memory, like controlling impulses. In contrast, older people access both right and left sides of the prefrontal cortex when engaged in similar brain activities. This is because as the aging brain becomes less efficient and looses processing capacity due to structural and physiological degradation, it must reorganize itself to compensate by using multiple sides of the brain.
However, when older adults show that they are aerobically fit through exercise tests, they have been shown in scientific studies to use the left side of their prefrontal cortexts, like younger people do. These findings show that there is a correlation between aerobic fitness though exercise, mental performance, and brain activation. For older people who are in shape from regular exercise, their brains perform mental tasks like younger people do. Scientists theorize that this is due to the white matter of the brain being maintained at a higher capacity in people who exercise regularly.
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