Get your children in the habit of being active now. It is the best way to ensure they age as gracefully as possible. Kids who have strength and endurance, and cardiorespiratory fitness in childhood, have better health outcomes, including a reduced risk of cardiometabolic disease as young adults. And higher levels of fitness in young adults seem to have a protective effect on cognitive function in mid- to later-life.
Few studies have examined how diet and fitness in childhood may affect cognitive function in midlife, and researchers at the National Centre for Healthy Ageing at Peninsula Health and Monash University in Melbourne, Australia and investigators from the Menzies Institute for Medical Research at the University of Tasmania looked at how kids’ fitness when they were 15 or under related to their mental abilities when they were between 39 and 50.
The researchers found that children with better cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness and lower hip-to-waist ratios scored better on tests of cognitive function in middle age than those who were less fit. The findings were independent of academic ability and socioeconomic status in childhood and alcohol use and smoking status in adulthood.
Children should be encouraged to restart sports they may have stopped during COVID-19 lockdowns.
It is important to identify factors early in life such as diet and exercise that can help maintain cognitive function later on, and implement interventions to improve fitness and reduce rates of obesity, researcher Michele Callisaya, an associate professor at Monash University, told TheDoctor.
“We know that better physical function and a healthy weight in childhood are associated with better educational outcomes and cardiovascular health. Our findings suggest it is also good for brain health in middle age.” The findings could be explained by a number of factors, she added.
They could reflect the effect of obesity and low levels of physical activity on other risk factors for poor brain health, such as high blood pressure and diabetes; or the role of physical activity in improving brain health, by promoting neuron and synapse formation and improving the health of blood vessels in the brain.
Cognitive function in midlife is also likely to be influenced by genetic factors associated with obesity and physical ability in childhood and whether or not a person continues healthy habits established as a child into adulthood.
“Children should have a positive experience with physical activity. It should be fun, and parents can be good role models,” Callisaya said. Establishing an exercise routine in childhood or adolescence and continuing it into middle age is important. Children should be encouraged to restart sports they may have stopped during COVID-19 lockdowns.
Higher levels of fitness in young adults seem to have a protective effect on cognitive function in mid- to later-life.
Eating a healthy diet as a child also plays a role in maintaining brain health into midlife. School cafeterias should offer children healthy options. Some schools have rolled out programs to offer students a healthy breakfast, Callisaya said.
Callisaya and her team hope to continue following participants in the current study to look at even longer-term health outcomes associated with cardiovascular and muscular fitness, including brain health.
The study is published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport.