Physical Activity May Improve Memory and Cognition in Older Adults

Staying physically active may improve quality of life by prolonging an independent lifestyle and delaying cognitive decline, finds a new study published online in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society.

Scott M. Hayes
Scott Hayes

The study examines the relationship between physical activity, memory and cognition in young and old adults. The researchers found that older adults who take more steps by either walking or jogging perform better on memory tasks than their peers who are less active.

‘’Our findings that physical activity is positively associated with memory is appealing for a variety of reasons. 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,” explained corresponding author Scott Hayes, PhD, assistant professor of Psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine and the Associate Director of the Neuroimaging Research for Veterans Center at the VA Boston Healthcare System.

The study compared 29 young adults (ages 18-31) and 31 older adults (ages 55-82) who wore a small device called an ActiGraph, which recorded information including the quantity, vigorousness, and duration of steps each day. The authors emphasize that the objective measurement of physical activity using the Actigraph was a key component of the current study, as the majority of similar studies to date have used self-reported questionnaires that can be impacted by memory failures or biases.

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.

Researchers found that, older adults who took more steps per day had better memory performance. The association between the amount of steps taken was strongest with a task that required recalling a person’s name when presented with the photograph of a face—the type of everyday task that is often a struggle for older individuals.

There was no association between physical activity as measured by number of steps and memory performance in the group of young adults.

According to the researchers, these findings demonstrate that the positive effects of physical activity extend to improved long-term memory. This is significant because long-term memory is the type of memory that is most negatively impacted by aging and neurodegenerative dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease.

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.

This work was supported by the Department of Veterans Affairs, Rehabilitation Research & Development Service [Career Development Award e7822w awarded to SMH] and Clinical Science Research & Development Service [MV]. Assistance with participant recruitment was provided by the Massachusetts Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (P50-AG005134) and Boston University Alzheimer’s Disease Center (P30-AG13846).

Submitted by Emily Oxford, MD