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Even for Preschoolers, Healthier Hearts May Mean Healthier Brains
  • Robert Preidt
  • Posted February 23, 2021

Even for Preschoolers, Healthier Hearts May Mean Healthier Brains

The link between heart-lung fitness and brain health may begin at an early age, new research shows.

The study revealed that 4- to 6-year-olds who could walk farther during a timed test also scored higher on tests of thinking abilities and other measures of brain function.

Most studies of the link between brain health and heart-lung ("cardiorespiratory") fitness have focused on older kids and adults. The new findings suggest that this link is evident even earlier in life, according to the researchers.

The study included 59 preschoolers who walked as far as they could in six minutes. They were then given tests to assess their intellectual abilities and how well they could focus. Mental flexibility was also checked in 33 youngsters.

"Preschool children with higher estimated cardiorespiratory fitness had higher scores on academic ability tasks related to general intellectual abilities as well as their use of expressive language," said study co-leader Shelby Keye. She is a doctoral student in kinesiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"They had better performance on computerized tasks requiring attention and multitasking skills, and they showed the potential for faster processing speeds and greater resource allocation in the brain when completing these computerized tasks," Keye said in a university news release.

The findings don't prove that heart-lung fitness improves thinking abilities in young children, but it adds to growing evidence that the two are closely linked, even as early as 4 years of age, according to the study authors.

Previous research has linked heart-lung fitness in older kids and adults with the size and connectivity of brain areas that play an important part in thinking and reasoning (or "cognitive") skills.

"But it isn't yet known at what point in the developmental trajectory of childhood this relationship emerges," Keye said.

The researchers also noted that, like older kids and adults, preschoolers aren't getting daily recommended levels of physical activity.

"This is worrisome, since brain development of core cognitive control processes begins in early childhood and continues well into early adulthood," said study co-leader Naiman Khan, a professor of kinesiology and community health.

The report was published online recently in the Journal of Clinical Medicine.

More information

The American Academy of Pediatrics has more on physical fitness.

SOURCE: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, news release, Feb. 4, 2021

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