Does moving more when you’re older = memory improvement?

Does moving more when you’re older = memory improvement?
© iStock/AleksandarNakic

According to the American Academy of Neurology, older adults who move more may preserve their thinking skills and experience memory improvement.

Memory improvement is said to occur with higher levels of daily movement. Whether it be daily exercise or even simple routine physical activity like housework, movement may preserve more of an individual’s memory and thinking skills, even if they have brain lesions or biomarkers linked to dementia.

Measuring memory improvement

Aron S. Buchman, MD, of the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and a member of the American Academy of Neurology explains: “Our research team measured levels of physical activity in study participants an average of two years prior to death, and then examined their brain tissue after death, and found that moving more may have a protective effect on the brain.”

“People who moved more had better thinking and memory skills compared to those who didn’t move much at all. We found movement may essentially provide a reserve to help maintain thinking and memory skills when there are signs of dementia present in the brain.”

The study looked at 454 older adults; 191 had dementia and 263 did not. All participants were given physical exams and thinking and memory tests every year for 20 years. Participants agreed to donate their brains for research upon death. The average age at death was 91.

To monitor physical activity, researchers gave each participant an activity monitor called an accelerometer. The wrist-worn device monitored physical activity around the clock, everything from small movements such as walking around the house to more vigorous movements like exercise routines.

After death, researchers examined the brain tissue of each participant, looking for lesions and biomarkers of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers found that higher levels of daily movement were linked to better thinking and memory improvement. The study also found that individuals who had better motor skills, also had better thinking and memory skills.

For every increase in physical activity by one standard deviation, participants were 31% less likely to develop dementia. For every increase in motor ability by one standard deviation, participants were 55% less likely to develop dementia.

Limitations of the study

“Exercise is an inexpensive way to improve health, and our study shows it may have a protective effect on the brain,” adds Buchman.

“But it is important to note that our study does not show cause and effect. It may also be possible that as people lose memory and thinking skills, they reduce their physical activity. More studies are needed to determine if moving more is truly beneficial to the brain.”

A limitation of the study was that it did not have data representing how active participants were over the course of their lives, just at one point later in life, therefore it is unknown if physical activity in early life may have played a role in memory improvement. Also, the study did not include the type of physical activity, so it is difficult to determine if one particular physical activity may be more effective than another.

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