Aug. 16, 2023

Doctoral trainee investigates cardiovascular and cerebrovascular aging in older adults at risk of dementia

Connor Snow examining sex differences and role of exercise in preventing cognitive decline
UCalgary Doctoral student Connor Snow stands in front of an evergreen tree.
Doctoral student Connor Snow is investigating the links between age, exercise and cognitive health. Submitted Photo

Older females have an increased risk of dementia, cardiovascular disease, and stroke compared to their male counterparts, but the reasons for these increased risks are unclear. Still, researchers are optimistic about the potential of exercise to impact cognitive ability in females at risk.

Connor Snow is a doctoral trainee in the Dept. of Neuroscience in the lab of Dr. Marc Poulin, PhD, who is trying to understand the disparity between aging males and females when it comes to vascular and cognitive health. He is also looking at the potential impacts of exercise on improving brain health.  

Snow’s research builds on Brain in Motion studies that have the been the focus of the Poulin lab for over a decade.  

In Brain in Motion I, Poulin’s team discovered that aerobic exercise improved brain function, including thinking and memory, in older, healthy adults who were previously sedentary. This study found that after regular aerobic exercise for six months, participants’ brains functioned the same as someone five years younger.   

Brain in Motion II, a randomized controlled trial, is continuing that work by investigating the relationship between exercise, cerebral blood flow, and cognition in older adults who are at increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. It also looks at the role that exercise might play in the prevention of cognitive decline.

Snow’s work is focused on the sex differences of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular aging in the males and females enrolled in this study. He wants to understand why males and females differ and examine if exercise can close that gap.  

From ages 50 to 80, blood pressure rises, and brain blood flow decreases much faster in females compared with their male counterparts, which may explain the higher prevalence of dementia, including Alzheimer disease, and other vascular diseases in women.

Researchers think these accelerated declines may be related to menopause and the changes in estrogen and progesterone levels, but the mechanisms behind the sex differences aren’t clear. 

Snow, a certified personal trainer with the Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology (CSEP) and former athlete, combines his interests in exercise therapy and brain health to explore the reasons underlying these biological differences, and  strives to present aerobic exercise as a lifestyle strategy to counteract these problems.

He recently received one of six Achievers in Medical Science Awards awarded by the University annually to attract and retain international-caliber students to the University of Calgary’s Graduate Medical programs.

Snow is tackling the question by measuring female specific factors, like age of menopause and sex hormones before and after exercise interventions, in an attempt to understand how these factors may play a role in cognitive decline.  

“Low brain blood flow and high blood pressure are a problem, and we are finding that female participants in our study are having a huge decline year over year, while male participants remain fairly constant in these areas,” says Snow.

Snow is excited to report that exercise appears to be making a positive impact. His hope is that early intervention with increased physical activity may counteract or slow the progression of age-related vascular health deterioration in females at risk.

His passion for his work is personal.  

“My grandma had Alzheimer’s, and that motivates me to do this work,” he says. “There is a huge deficit in women’s health, and I want to help change that.”

Snow earned his undergrad degree in Kinesiology at the University of Calgary, majoring in Health and Exercise Physiology. He hopes to pursue a medical degree with the goal of sharing his findings about the importance of an active lifestyle to his patients.