Exercise helps adults with memory problems

New research suggests that a simple exercise routine may be enough to help seniors with memory problems.

Doctors have long said that physical activity helps keep the brain healthy. But the US government-funded study is based on the longest trials to determine whether exercise has an effect once memory begins to fail. And the study was conducted in the midst of a pandemic that added isolation to the list of mental health risks for participants.

The researchers recruited about 300 sedentary elderly people with a hard-to-diagnose memory problem called mild cognitive impairment, which is sometimes, but not always, a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. Half were assigned aerobic exercises and the others stretching and balancing movements that barely increased their heart rate.

Another crucial element was that the participants in both groups received the attention of the coaches who worked with them at YMCA gyms across the country. And when gyms were closed by COVID-19, they helped keep them moving at home through video calls.

After a year, cognitive tests revealed that neither group had gotten worse, said lead researcher Laura Baker, a neurologist at Wake Forest School of Medicine. Brain scans did not show the shrinkage that accompanies aggravated memory problems.

By comparison, patients with mild cognitive impairment in another long-term mental health study — but without exercise — experienced significant cognitive decline after one year.

These early results are surprising, and the National Institute on Aging has warned that the evidence would have been stronger if non-exercisers had been studied in the same test.

But the results indicate “it’s doable for everyone,” not just older adults healthy enough to sweat, said Baker, who presented the data Tuesday at the Alzheimer’s Association’s international conference. “Exercise must be part of the prevention strategy” for older people at risk.


The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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