The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


Research Study Summary: The Connection Between Heart Health and Brain Health

Written by
Amber Freeland
Posted in

Wednesday, Aug 15, 2018

Mental health is a hot topic across the country. We know that exercise can ward off depression and heart disease, but can a single measure of aerobic capacity at midlife predict the risk of both in later life? 

The latest research from The Cooper Institute, published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry, looks at the connection between midlife fitness and later-life depression and the risk of death from heart disease.

Read the Full Study here

Our research team, including UT Southwestern Medical Center, evaluated the fitness levels of nearly 18,000 participants who were around 50 years old. Using Medicare administrative data from over 20 years later, the team looked to see if those patients experienced depression, death from cardiovascular disease, or both and what the correlation was to their midlife fitness level.

The results were somewhat surprising in that compared to those with low fitness levels, subjects with the highest levels of fitness at midlife had:
  • 16% decrease in risk of depression
  • 56% decrease in risk of cardiovascular mortality if depressed
  • 61% decrease in risk of cardiovascular mortality if not depressed

The results demonstrate that aerobic fitness is important to the long-term prevention of both depression and CVD death. The subjects’ fitness was not re-evaluated in later life, so it is unclear whether those participants changed their fitness levels as they aged. What is clear is that the benefits of aerobic exercise have long-lasting effects. While this in itself is not surprising, the researchers were surprised that a single measurement of fitness could be such a strong indicator over two decades later.

Left to Right: Madhukar Trivedi, MD; Benjamin L. Willis MD, MPH


"These new insights illustrate the importance of fitness to maintain both physical and psychological health as we age," said Dr. Benjamin Willis, Director of Epidemiology at The Cooper Institute and lead author of the study. “Now we know that the long-term benefits and the connection between mind-body wellness are more significant than we thought.  We hope our study will highlight the role of fitness and physical activity in early prevention efforts by physicians in promoting healthy aging.”

“There is enough evidence to show that the effect of low fitness on depression and heart disease is real,” said Dr. Muhmar Trivedi, director of the Center for Depression Research and Clinical Care at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and co-author of the study.

There is a growing body of research that shows being physically fit can lower the risk of developing depression, and can also lower the risk of developing heart disease and dying early. “Depression doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” said Trivedi. “Especially for people who are older, depression has a complicated relationship with other major medical diseases.”

Less than half of American adults meet the minimum requirement for physical activity as outlined by the US Department of Health and Human Services. That recommendation is for 150 minutes weekly of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity. That’s about 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Regular exercise and vitamin D supplementation may also help prevent cognitive decline as we age, as shown in two recent studies by The Cooper Institute.

Some examples of aerobic exercise include:
  • Brisk walking
  • Running or jogging
  • Swimming
  • Cycling

 “There are clear links between fitness, heart health and brain health,” said Dr. Willis. “It’s never too late to get off the couch to improve fitness at any age.”

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