A fitting way to age

If you are terrified at the thought of spending your final days in a nursing home—unable to manage much more than counting floor tiles—you might want to pick up the latest issue of Neurology, the official journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

It practically screams out, "Get fit before you get old!"

No fewer than three articles highlight research that suggests that not only does exercise keep your heart and lungs in top form, but also keeps your brain firing on all cylinders.

One article— Relation between body mass index and cognitive function in healthy middle-aged men and women — featured a study that looked at the connection between body mass index (BMI) and the ability to think, learn, and remember over time. More than 2,000 healthy men and women in France were divided into five groups, according to their BMI in 1996. They were given a series of memory tests. Five years later, the process was repeated.

The people with the lower BMI tended to do better, leading the researchers to conclude that obesity not only puts more stress on your heart, but also affects the blood vessels that feed your brain.

A BMI of 25 or less is considered healthy — for most people. If your BMI is between 25 and 30, you're considered overweight, and if it's over 30, you're into obese territory.

The study of 2,000 men and women in France is not the first to suggest that the higher your BMI, the greater your risk for memory loss later in life. But it's considered more definitive because the sample size was much bigger than many previous studies.

A second article — Physical fitness and lifetime cognitive change — looked at a study that found that the fitter you are in youth, the better your chances of retaining cognitive skills as you get older. It also suggested that getting fit when you are older helps.

But the clincher was the article that found a heightened risk of developing dementia among older people with some cognitive impairment.

Now, that study didn't say whether the researchers considered BMI or fitness levels. Still, the body of evidence is enough to get me searching for my running shoes. If I could only remember where I put them.