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02/12/2016 03:09 pm ET

Better Fitness In Middle Age May Stop This Organ From Shrinking

Scary stuff.

Couch potatoes, beware. A new study says that being out of shape can have some serious ramifications later in life -- and it's scarier than just a growing waistline.

Researchers analyzed data from the long-running Framingham Heart Study, to look at the relationship between fitness in middle age and brain health later on.

“We found a direct correlation in our study between poor fitness and brain volume decades later, which indicates accelerated brain aging,” study author Nicole Spartano, of the Boston University School of Medicine, said in a release.

Initially, the participants, with an average age of 40 -- and no signs of dementia or heart disease -- were asked to take a treadmill fitness test and undergo MRIs. Their blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen usage, or VO2, were measured.  

Of the 1,100 participants they looked at, those who had higher blood pressure, lower oxygen usage or a greater spike in heart rate during exercise showed a greater risk for brain shrinkage at a 20-year followup, compared to their more fit counterparts. 

“These results suggest that fitness in middle age may be particularly important for the many millions of people around the world who already have evidence of heart disease,” Spartano said, stressing the importance of fitness and good cardiovascular health.

The researchers say that since the study is observational, they can't say it's a causal relationship, but merely a way to point out a strong association.

To put it simply, an extra 17 heartbeats per minute were equivalent to an additional year of brain aging. 

Though the study can't confirm causality, other research has shown a similar link between fitness and cognitive health. One 2013 study said that people who were fit in midlife were up to 40 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease as they got older. Other studies have shown that in addition to reducing dementia risk, fitness can help stave off diabetes and cardiovascular disease as well. 

Another reason to get up off the couch and get moving.

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