Introduction: Several studies report late-life physical activity (PA) to be associated with less brain atrophy. Associations of PA and subclinical brain markers evaluated at older ages may be subject to reverse causality due to comorbidity, age-related changes in lifestyle, or incipient cognitive impairment. Therefore, we aimed to compare late-life cross-sectional estimates of PA and ROI brain volumes to those using prospective PA measures from mid- to late-life.
Methods: Participants (n=1549, mean age: 75, 39% male, 20% Black) with repeat assessments of PA from visit 1 (1987-1989) and a brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in 2011-2013 were included. Total volume of PA in metabolic equivalent-min/week was estimated using the Baecke Physical Activity Questionnaire and classified as no, low, middle or high at each visit. Based on visit 1 and 3 (1993-1995) PA assessments, a subset of participants (n=663) were further categorized as habitually inactive or having habitually low, middle, or high PA in mid-life. Brain MRI using 3D-1.5T equipment quantified ROI volumes following a standardized protocol. Weighted linear regression adjusted for intracranial volume, demographics, select cardiovascular risk factors and ApoE4 estimated the standardized difference in ROI volumes.
Results: Compared to no PA, high PA was associated with larger ROI brain volumes cross-sectionally in late-life (Table). High mid-life PA was only modestly associated with larger frontal cortical and deep gray matter volumes in late-life (Table). Habitually high PA in mid-life was not associated with less atrophy across brain regions in late-life.
Conclusions: Our results do not support a causal interpretation of the cross-sectional associations between PA and brain volumes reported in late-life. Drawing on long-term population-based data, this study provides novel information on the associations of PA across life epochs with brain health, which can inform translational and intervention efforts to reduce age-related cognitive impairment.