Brain or Muscles? Which Do We Lose First?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one person dies in the world every 10 seconds due to physical inactivity. From the age of 50, there is a gradual decline not only in physical activity but also in cognitive abilities as there is a correlation between the two.

But which ones affect the other?

Does physical activity affect the brain or vice versa? To answer this question, researchers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), Switzerland, and the NCCR Lives Switzerland National Research Center Competence Center used a database of more than 100,000 people aged 50-90, whose physical and cognitive abilities were measured every two years for 12 years. .

Brain or Muscles? Which Do We Lose First?

Findings published in the journal Health Psychology show that, contrary to what was previously thought, cognitive abilities inhibit inactivity more than physical activity and prevent decline in cognitive abilities. All of this means we should prioritize using our brains.

The literature in this area has been investigating the impact of physical activity on cognitive skills for several years. “Relationships have been established between these two factors, particularly in terms of memory, but also in the growth and survival of new neurons,” says BorisCheval, a researcher at UNIGE’s Swiss Center for Affective Sciences (CISA).

“But we haven’t officially tested it yet, it’s the first to come: does physical activity prevent cognitive abilities decline or vice versa? We wanted to verify this. ”

The egg or the chicken, the chicken or the egg?

Previous studies based on the correlation between physical activity and cognitive skills suggested that the former prevented the latter from declining.

“What if this research only told half the story? This is what recent studies suggest, as it shows that our brains are involved in engaging in physical activity. ”

UNIGE researchers formally tested two possible options using data from the SHARE survey (Health, Aging and Retirement Survey in Europe), a Europe-wide socio-economic database covering 25 countries.

Brain or Muscles? Which Do We Lose First?

“The cognitive abilities and level of physical activity of 105,206 adults aged 50 to 90 were tested every two years for 12 years,” said Matthieu Boisgontier, a researcher at the National Center for Competence for Studies in Lives Switzerland (NCCR Lives). Cognitive abilities were measured using a verbal fluency test (naming as many animals as possible in 60 seconds) and a memory test (memorizing 10 words and then reading them). Physical activity was measured on a scale of 1 (“Never”) to 4 (“More than once a week”).

  • Geneva researchers used these data in three separate statistical models.
  • In the first, they looked at whether physical activity predicted change in cognitive skills over time;
  • in the second, whether cognitive skills predict changes in physical activity; and in the third, they tested the two possibilities in two ways.
  • “Thanks to a statistical index, we found that the second model was most precisely adapted to the participants’ data,” Cheval.

Thus, the study shows that cognitive capacities mainly affect physical activity and not vice versa, as the literature to date suggests. “Physical activity is obviously a virtuous cycle, as it also affects our cognitive capacity,” says Boisgontier. However, in light of these new findings, it does so to a lesser extent, ”he said.

Do not slow down an inevitable fall

Decline in physical and cognitive abilities is inevitable from the age of 50. However, these results show that contrary to what was once thought, if we act on our cognitive abilities first, we can slow the decline of this virtuous circle. Cheval “This study supports the theory that the brain must make a real effort to get out of a sedentary lifestyle and that physical activity will follow by working on cognitive capacities.”

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