Brain Tip #1:  Use your Body, Benefit your Mind

Brain Tip #1:  Use your Body, Benefit your Mind

Want to improve your chances of avoiding mild cognitive decline as you age? Or even of getting Alzheimer’s?  Researchers have identified several things we can do. Among them, is this strong recommendation: Get off your couch. And get active.           This is not new advice. Those of us 55 and older have heard this for many years. But what does a closer look at the research actually say? Is there much scientific support for this idea that physical exercise improves cognitive health? In a word, Yes. Here is just a sample of 10 studies, among hundreds that could be cited.


  1. Multiple cognitive skills benefit from physical exercise. A longitudinal study of the association between midlife physical activity and late-life cognitive function and dementia found that being physically active for about 5 hours a week predicted higher scores in processing speed, memory, and executive functions, even after controlling for demographic and cardiovascular factors. Participants who reported being this active were significantly less likely to have dementia in later life.


  1. Even the number of blocks one walks per week has been shown to reduce cognitive decline, as assessed by performance on a test of cognitive function. This study involved 5,925 participants 65 and older over the course of 6 to 8 years.


  1. A study of people over 50 living in their homes in 11 European countries (Austria, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, and Greece) found that “any type of physical activity showed less cognitive decline after 2.5 years,” more so when folks engaged in vigorous activities more than once a week.


  1. A group of 349 people age 55 and older were studied over a 6 year period. At the beginning of the study, participants showed no evidence of cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disability, or cognitive impairment. The researchers measured cardiovascular health using a standard treadmill protocol that examined peak oxygen consumption, treadmill exercise duration, and oxygen uptake efficiency. They also gave a standard cognitive test. Six years later, they tested everyone again, and found that those with the healthiest hearts scored higher on cognitive measuresof global cognitive function, the ability to sustain attention, and executive function.


  1. Another study compared 198 participants with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) to 1,126 with normal cognition. Researchers found that moderate activity during midlife lowered the risk of MCI later in life by 39%. Those who began moderate exercise later in life had a 32% lower risk for MCI.


  1. Here are more numbers that quantify the lowered risk for people who exercise. Those who exercise at least 3 times a week reduce their chances of dementia by 32%, when compared with those who exercise fewer than 3 times a week.


  1. Your body won’t let you physically active? Even resistance training improves cognitive functioning. Resistance training is activity that requires muscles to contract, thereby building strength One study showed that just six months of resistance training (either moderate or high intensity training) improved both memory performance and verbal concept formationin a group of 62 men between the ages of 65 and 75.


  1. Another study involving muscle strength reported a strong correlation between strength and both a slower rate of cognitive decline and a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s.These results were found in following 900 community-based older persons without dementia at baseline. The protective effects of strength training remained after adjustment for body mass index, physical activity, pulmonary function, vascular risk factors, and vascular diseases.


  1. An individualized home-based program of balance and strength retraining significantly improved cognitive functioning in seniors 70 and older with a recent history of falls. Participants improved in measures of selective attention and conflict resolution as measured by the Stroop Test after six months of training. This test has been shown to identify signs of early Alzheimers.


There you have it. If you’re over 55 and already physically active, good for you!  Your chances of experiencing mild cognitive decline or dementia are notably lower than they would otherwise be. And…if you’re not (yet) physically active, why not? A beneficial exercise program can begin at any age. Intervention studies of those who start later in life show that those who complete a physical activity program show not only improved cardio functioning, but also enhanced cognitive performance. (10)


  1. Chang, M., Jonsson, P.V., J. Snaedal, J., et al. The effect of midlife physical activity on cognitive function among older adults: AGES—Reykjavik study. Journals of Gerontology A.


  1. Yaffe, K., Barnes, D., Nevitt, M., Lui, L.Y., & Covinsky, K. .Physical Activity, Including Walking, and Cognitive Function in Older Women.  Archives of Internal Medicine.


  1.  Aichberger, M.A., Busch, F.M., Reischies, A., Ströhle, A., Heinz, A., & Rapp, M.A. Effect of physical inactivity on cognitive performance after 2.5 years of follow-up: Longitudinal results from the survey of health, ageing, and retirement. GeroPsych:The Journal of Gerontopsychology and Geriatric Psychiatry


  1. Bherer, L., Erickson, K. I., & Liu-Ambrose, T. A review of the effects of physical activity and exercise on cognitive and brain functions in older adults.Journal of Aging Research.


  1. Geda, Y.E., Roberts, R.O., Knopman, D.S., et al. Physical exercise, aging, and mild cognitive impairment a population-based study. Archives of Neurology.


6. Larson, E.B., Wang, L., Bowen, J.D., et al. Exercise is associated with reduced risk for incident dementia among persons 65 years of age and older. Annals of Internal Medicine.


7. Cassilhas, R.C., Viana, V.A.R., Grassmann. et al. The impact of resistance exercise on the cognitive function of the elderly. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.


  1. Boyle, P.A., Buchman, A.S., Wilson, R.S., Leurgans, S.E., & Bennett, D.A. Physical frailty is associated with incident mild cognitive impairment in community-based older persons. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.


9. T. Liu-Ambrose, T., M. G. Donaldson, M/G/. Y. Ahamed, Y., et al. Otago home-based strength and balance retraining improves executive functioning in older fallers: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.


  1. Dustman, R.E., Ruhling, R.O., Russell, E.M., et al. Aerobic exercise training and improved neuropsychological function of older individuals. Neurobiology of Aging.


John Robertson

Leave a Reply

  1. Deborah Nelson:

    Thanks for the great blog post and good reminder that physical activity is good for us, especially “at our age.” I see more and more people remaining active. I regularly run and participate in endurance sports and find that as I age, the competition remains strong in my age groups. It isn’t uncommon to see 70-somethings running half marathons, doing century bike rides, and competing in shorter triathlons. Proof that “Older, Faster, Stronger” is possible.

    • John Robertson:

      Indeed, Deborah. For many of us, it is possible physically to remain active a long time. Even those who start an active program later in life can still benefit greatly from a regular and consistent exercise. Good for you!

  2. Frank Barthell:

    Useful article. Much needed reminders.
    Let me recommend Bocce as a good (maybe not great) form of exercise. What it
    lacks in aerobic or strength challenges, it more than compensates with collegial competition, and opportunities for game-winning,
    or game-losing, throws.

    • John Robertson:

      Thanks, Frank! What a great idea. Bocce ball has a millennia-long history, as I understand it. And for good reason. The game not only requires some moderate physical exertion (similar to walking), but also has the added benefit of socializing, as you note. And that socializing also contributes to keeping our minds sharp.