A new Canadian study suggests that older adults, even those who are minimally active to begin with, may perform better on certain thinking and memory tests after engaging in several months of aerobic exercise.
The findings, published in the journal Neurology, show that after six months of exercise, participants improved by 5.7% on tests of executive function, which includes mental flexibility and self-correction. Verbal fluency, which tests how quickly you can retrieve information, increased by 2.4%.
“This change in verbal fluency is what you’d expect to see in someone five years younger,” said study author Marc J. Poulin, Ph.D., D.Phil., from the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada.
“As we all find out eventually, we lose a bit mentally and physically as we age. But even if you start an exercise program later in life, the benefit to your brain may be immense.”
For the study, 206 adults (average age 66) participated in a 6-month, supervised aerobic exercise program held three days a week. Before the study began, the participants had exercised no more than four days per week at a moderate intensity of 30 minutes or less, or no more than two days per week at a high intensity for 20 minutes or less per day.
The participants had no history of heart or memory problems and were given thinking and memory tests at the start of the study, as well as an ultrasound to measure blood flow in the brain. Physical testing was repeated at three months, and thinking and physical testing repeated at the end of the six months.
As the participants progressed through the program, they increased their workout from an average of 20 minutes a day to an average of at least 40 minutes. In addition, they were asked to work out on their own once a week.
Before and after six months of aerobic activity, the participants’ average peak blood flow to the brain was measured using ultrasound. Blood flow rose from an average of 51.3 centimeters per second (cm/sec) to an average of 52.7 cm/sec, a 2.8% increase.
The increase in blood flow with exercise was linked to a number of modest but significant improvements in aspects of thinking that usually decline as we age, Poulin said.
“Sure, aerobic exercise gets blood moving through your body. As our study found, it may also get blood moving to your brain, particularly in areas responsible for verbal fluency and executive functions. Our finding may be important, especially for older adults at risk for Alzheimer’s and other dementias and brain disease,” said Poulin.
“Our study showed that six months’ worth of vigorous exercise may pump blood to regions of the brain that specifically improve your verbal skills as well as memory and mental sharpness,” said Poulin. “At a time when these results would be expected to be decreasing due to normal aging, to have these types of increases is exciting.”
A limitation of the study was that the people doing the exercise were not compared to a similar group of people who were not exercising, so the results may have been due to other factors. However, the researchers tried to control for this by testing participants twice over six months before the start of the program. In addition, some of the exercise was unsupervised, so the amount reported may be unreliable.
Source: American Academy of Neurology
Source: PsychCentral Just 6 Months of Aerobics May Improve Thinking, Memory in Older Adults