Effects of cardiovascular risks and acute exercise on cognitive and brain functioning in young adults
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Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is characterized by damage to the vasculature, leading to impaired blood circulation. This damage is related to structural deficits in the brain as well as decreased cognitive performance. Risks for CVD are more common among young adults now than in previous generations of this cohort. While associations between CVD states and cognition are well studied, little is known about how risk factors for CVD may influence cognitive functioning in young populations. Physical activity engagement is one potential method for decreasing CVD risks and improving cognitive performance. The purpose of this dissertation was to examine the effects of CVD risks and acute exercise on cognitive and neural outcomes in young adults. A sample of 100 young adults aged 18-30 was recruited for this study. Participants underwent a blood draw, an aerobic fitness assessment, and a cognitive battery. A subset was randomly assigned to exercise (n=40) and control (n = 31) groups to examine the effects of a bout of exhaustive exercise on cognitive function. On separate a day, participants (n=17) engaged in a moderate intensity acute exercise with cognitive and functional neuroimaging assessments at baseline and post-exercise. In the first study, cross-sectional analyses revealed that young adults who possessed three or more risks for CVD had significantly inferior performance on cognitive tests requiring incongruent processing compared to their peers with no identified CVD risks. Participants who engaged in a bout of acute exhaustive exercise had increased cognitive performance post exercise compared to resting controls, in the second study. In study three, an acute bout of moderate intensity exercise had no effects on neural activation in the overall sample of participants. However, blood pressure moderated the effects of acute exercise on neural activation such that pre-hypertensive individuals experienced a differential increase in task-related brain activation after exercise in several brain regions. Young adults who possess several CVD risk factors may already be experiencing subtle decrements to their executive functioning, specifically during incongruent tasks. Short bouts of exercise produce cognitive benefits in this population and also increase brain activation during executive functioning tasks in those who have several CVD risks. Findings from these three studies have public health implications as regular engagement in moderate to very vigorous physical activity has cognitive benefits related to the prevention of age-related cognitive impairments.