Role of Cardiovascular Risk Factors on the Association Between Physical Activity and Brain Integrity Markers in Older Adults

Objective: Physical activity has been associated with a decreased risk for dementia, but the mechanisms underlying this association remain to be determined. Our objective was to assess whether cardiovascular risk factors mediate the association between physical activity and brain integrity markers in older adults.

Methods: Participants from the Age-Well study underwent, at baseline, a physical activity questionnaire, cardiovascular risk factors collection (systolic blood pressure, body mass index [BMI], current smoker status, HDL-cholesterol, total-cholesterol, insulin) and multimodal neuroimaging (structural-MRI, diffusion-MRI, FDG-PET, Florbetapir-PET). Multiple regressions were conducted to assess the association between physical activity, cardiovascular risk factors, and neuroimaging. Mediation analyses were performed to test whether cardiovascular risk factors mediated the associations between physical activity and neuroimaging.

Results: 134 cognitively unimpaired older adults (≥65 years) were included. Higher physical activity was associated with higher grey matter (GM) volume (ß=0.174, p=0.030) and cerebral glucose metabolism (ß=0.247, p=0.019), but not with amyloid deposition or white matter integrity. Higher physical activity was associated with lower insulin and BMI, but not with the other cardiovascular risk factors. Lower insulin and BMI were related to higher GM volume, but not to cerebral glucose metabolism. When controlling for insulin and BMI, the association between physical activity and cerebral glucose metabolism remained unchanged, while the association with GM volume was lost. When insulin and BMI were entered in the same model, only BMI remained a significant predictor of GM volume. Mediation analyses confirmed that insulin and BMI mediated the association between physical activity and GM volume. Analyses were replicated within Alzheimer’s disease-sensitive regions, and results remained overall similar.

Conclusions: The association between physical activity and GM volume is mediated by changes in insulin and BMI. In contrast, the association with cerebral glucose metabolism seems to be independent from cardiovascular risk factors. Older adults practicing physical activity have cardiovascular benefits, through the maintenance of a lower BMI and insulin, resulting in greater structural brain integrity. This study has strong implications as understanding how physical activity affects brain health may help developing strategies to prevent or delay age-related decline.