Physical Activity Tied to Improved Memory in Older Adults

More evidence that physical activity can benefit cognition as we age comes from a Boston University study that finds older adults who take more steps walking or jogging perform better on memory tasks than those who are more sedentary.

The study, published online in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, examined the relationship between physical activity, memory and cognition in young and old adults.

Researchers followed 29 young adults (ages 18-31) and 31 older adults (ages 55-82). Each participant wore a small device called an ActiGraph, a device that records information including how many steps each took, how vigorous the steps were and how much time it involved.

Participants also completed neuropsychological testing to assess their memory, planning and problem-solving abilities. In addition to standardized neuropsychological tasks of executive function (planning and organization abilities) and long-term memory, participants engaged in a laboratory task in which they had to learn face-name associations.

The researchers found that older adults who took more steps per day had better memory performance. They found the number of steps taken was strongest positive factor for a task that required recalling which name went with a person’s face — the same type of everyday task that older adults often have difficulty with.

In young adults, the number of steps taken was not associated with memory performance.

According to the researchers these findings demonstrate that the effects of physical activity extend to long-term memory, which can be degraded by aging and neurodegenerative dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Identification of physical activity as a protective factor for dementia would be a compelling discovery as the vast population of baby boomers transition to old age.

”Our findings that physical activity is positively associated with memory is appealing for a variety of reasons,” said corresponding author Scott Hayes, Ph.D. “Everyone knows that physical activity is a critical component to ward off obesity and cardiovascular-related disease.

“Knowing that a lack of physical activity may negatively impact one’s memory abilities will be an additional piece of information to motivate folks to stay more active,”he said.

The authors point out that staying physically active can take a variety of forms from formal exercise programs to small changes, such as walking or taking the stairs.

“More research is needed to explore the specific mechanisms of how physical activity may positively impact brain structure and function as well as to clarify the impact of specific exercise programs (e.g., strength, aerobic, or combined training) or dose of exercise (frequency, intensity, duration) on a range of cognitive functions,” added Hayes.

The authors emphasize that the objective measurement of physical activity was a key component of the current study, as the majority of studies to date have used self-report questionnaires, which can be impacted by memory failures or biases. The research was funded in part by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Source: Boston University/EurekAlert