Seniors Who Exercise Reap Benefits, Including Better Memory Skills

areas in the brain's memory center are activated after light exercise

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Seniors who begin aerobics can add memory function to the list of benefits. Staying active has always been an important part of aging well, but new studies show that exercise can help unrelated parts of a senior’s brain communicate, leading to better recollection. Even walking 15 minutes a day can help.

Senior woman walking by lakeside
Studies have shown a correlational relationship between physical activity and improved cognitive function for seniors. Photo By Halfpoint / Shutterstock

Health experts have long encouraged members of the public to stay active as they get older. We’ve long known that our physical bodies have a more difficult time of things as they age, and it’s best to counteract that with physical, social, and mental activity. Further research continues to underscore that point, as new studies show that older people who take up aerobics reap cognitive health benefits.

One such study suggests that unconnected parts of the brain’s memory center start to communicate as a senior citizen takes up light aerobics, improving memory function.

In his video series The Aging Brain, Dr. Thad Polk, Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan, listed the believed cognitive benefits of physical exercise.

The Nurses’ Health Study

Science involves testing hypotheses and a careful reticence to declare facts. The question is: “Does physical exercise make your brain healthier?” Dr. Polk answers by saying, “A lot of evidence suggests the answer is yes.” The first study he cited, which was from Harvard’s School of Public Health, used nurses as a test group.

“The researchers mailed questionnaires, asking about walking and other physical activity, to nearly 20,000 older nurses starting back in 1986,” he said. “Then, they called up those same nurses 10 to 15 years later and asked them to perform some cognitive tests over the phone, and they found that the nurses who had been more physically active did better on the cognitive tests.

“The more active nurses also exhibited less of a drop-off in their cognitive performance as they got older.”

Dr. Polk added that it wasn’t just vigorous exercise that helped; nurses who had kept up walking for 15 minutes a day also showed better cognitive skills.

Causation or Just Correlation?

Another study that lent weight to this theory was called the Canadian Study of Health and Aging. Dr. Polk said it followed more than 4,000 people who had been cognitively normal five years earlier to see which of them developed cognitive ailments, including dementia.

“The most physically active people were about 40% less likely to have developed cognitive impairments compared with people who were not active,” he said. “Likewise, the most physically active people were about 50% less likely to have developed dementia of the Alzheimer’s type. Even low levels of activity reduced the risk of cognitive impairments and of Alzheimer’s disease by about 33% compared to no activity.”

Do these studies exhibit causation or just correlation? In other words, have we found tangible, concrete proof that physical exercise improves cognitive health or not?

“These results are correlational, so we can’t tell definitively whether physical activity actually causes improvements in cognition and health,” Dr. Polk said.

However, with increasing amounts of evidence linking physical activity with stronger mental health, especially in seniors, it’s very possible that science has stumbled upon two linked phenomena whose physical or chemical connection simply hasn’t revealed itself yet.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily