Exercise might provide some measure of protection from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, according to research published in the latest issue of the journal NeuroImage.

“We set out to characterize the relationship between heart function, fitness and cerebral blood flow, which no other study had explored to date,” Nathan Johnson, Ph.D., of the University of Kentucky College of Health Sciences, who led the research. “In other words, if you’re in good physical shape, does that improve blood flow to critical areas of the brain? And does that improved blood flow provide some form of protection from dementia?”

Thirty men and women aged 59 to 69 years underwent treadmill fitness assessments and ultrasounds of the heart. Then they received brain scans to look for blood flow to certain areas of the brain. The study demonstrated that regular exercise at any age could keep the mind young, Johnson said.

“Can we prove irrefutably that increased fitness will prevent Alzheimer’s disease? Not at this point,” he added. “But this is an important first step towards demonstrating that being physically active improves blood flow to the brain and confers some protection from dementia, and, conversely, that people who live sedentary lifestyles, especially those who are genetically predisposed to Alzheimer’s, might be more susceptible.”

Johnson said his research is a return to looking at the ways the vascular system contributes to the disease process, which was a popular area for investigation in the mid to late 20th century before amyloid plaques and tangles were discovered.

Hear Johnson talk about the research below.