One year of aerobic exercise enhances white matter integrity in prefrontal and temporal areas in older adults

Aging-related decline in cognitive function is a rapidly increasing societal challenge in nations where the population is aging rapidly such as in European Union countries. With normal aging there are a number of changes in brain structure and function, and degeneration of cerebral white matter (that is composed of connections linking brain areas together) has been consistently observed to take place with aging. This degeneration of brain connectivity has been further observed to correlate with aging-related decline in cognitive functioning. While cardio-respiratory (i.e., aerobic) fitness has been reported to protect against aging-associated cognitive decline, the effects of aerobic fitness on white-matter integrity in aging have remained an open question.

In their recent study, Voss et al. (2012) showed that increased aerobic fitness caused by a one-year walking program predicted enhanced white-matter integrity in prefrontal and temporal lobe areas that are especially susceptible to the adverse effects of aging. Aerobic fitness that resulted from the exercise intervention also predicted short-term memory improvements. These results extend in a very interesting way the scope of applications of diffusion imaging methods and even though the authors failed to see any statistically significant associations between the increased white-matter integrity and short-term memory improvements, these results are nonetheless promising, provide an important contribution to understanding the neuro-cognitive protective effects of aerobic exercise in aging, and suggest that aerobic training is highly important for aging persons. 

ReferenceVoss MW, Heo S, Prakash RS, Erickson KI, Alves H, Chaddock L, Szabo AN, Mailey EL, Wojcicki TR, White SM, Gothe N, McAuley E, Sutton BP, Kramer AF. The influence of aerobic fitness on cerebral white matter integrity and cognitive function in older adults: results of a one-year exercise intervention. Human Brain Mapping (2012), e-publication prior to print. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/hbm.22119

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