Lead author Charles Emery, professor of psychology at Ohio State University, and colleagues analyzed data from a Swedish study that tracked participants' health measures for almost two decades.
Their analysis, published in the journal Psychological Science, found reduced pulmonary function can lead to the brain's diminished problem-solving and processing speed as a person ages -- two types of "fluid" cognitive brain function.
"The logical conclusion from this is that anything you could do to maintain lung function should be of benefit to fluid cognitive performance as well," Emery said in a statement. "Maintaining an exercise routine and stopping smoking would be two primary methods. Nutritional factors and minimizing environmental exposure to pollutants also come into play."
Emery said the finding offered insight into the process of human aging. One theory of aging is that all functions slow at the same rate, but this study suggests some aspects of functional decline contribute to a change in the rate of other areas of decline.
"It starts to speak to the bigger question: What are the processes involved in aging?" Emery said.