We all forget things from time to time, where we left the keys or a missed appointment. The troubling part is that memory loss only increases with age. But when do these “senior moments” become a concern? If someone is frequently forgetting details of conversations and events, these may be signs of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), affecting up to 35 percent of those over age 70. And what’s more frightening is that MCI can be a precursor to developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. While you may think that memory loss is just an inevitable, unavoidable sign of aging, a new study suggests that moderate physical activity performed in midlife or later may help protect the nervous system and reduce the risk of MCI. It’s a scientific fact that exercise increases blood flow to the brain. So it’s not a stretch to think that a physical workout may not only help the body stay young, but also the mind.
The study examined 33 adults with mild cognitive impairment who were assigned to an exercise group, either performing aerobic exercises or stretching exercises for up to one hour per day, four days a week, for six months. The control group of 10 individuals performed supervised stretching exercises according to the same schedule but their heart rates remained low. Fitness testing, body fat analysis, blood tests of metabolic markers and cognitive functions were evaluated before, during and after the six-month trial. Overall, participants in the higher-intensity aerobic exercise group experienced improved cognitive function compared with those in the control group. These effects were more pronounced in women than in men, despite similar benefits in heart health and fat loss. Researchers theorize that this may have been the case because women and men have different metabolic tendencies; changes to the body’s use and production of insulin, glucose and the stress hormone cortisol differed in men and women. Nevertheless, both women and men who engage in aerobic exercise showed improvement in executive function.
So now you can add memory and cognitive improvement to the list of reasons to stick with your exercise routine. If you’re older and have physical limitations, there are many types of lower impact aerobic activity that will provide the same benefits, including swimming, walking, tennis, yoga and golf. Studies indicate that one should consult a healthcare professional in determining the best individualized aerobic activity for optimal mental and physical results.