Aerobic exercise found to boost episodic memory as we get older
Scientists continue to illuminate the many ways exercise can positively influence brain health by examining its effects on the many forms of cognitive function, and the latest places a spotlight on our ability to recall past experiences. The results of a wide-ranging analysis on the connection between regular physical activity and what's known as episodic memory show that staying on the move can help prevent its decline as we move into late adulthood.
In recent years, scientists have really drilled into the details around how exercise can benefit our brains. Examples include how physical activity can boost problem-solving, stave off mild cognitive impairment, improve schizophrenia symptoms, enhance learning and lower our risk of depression.
This new study was led by psychologists at the University of Pittsburgh, who identified a gap in our knowledge around the way aerobic exercise can impact episodic memory specifically. This is facilitated by part of the brain known to benefit from exercise, and is one of the types of memory most sensitive to age-related decline. It refers to our ability to recollect details of a personal experience, such as when and where it took place.
“I usually like to talk about the first time you got behind the wheel of a car,” said lead author Sarah Aghjayan. “So you might remember where you were, how old you were, who was in the passenger seat explaining things to you, that feeling of excitement.”
To shed new light on the matter, the scientists started by looking over no less than 1,279 studies, which they then whittled down to 36 that satisfied a certain criteria, to account for factors such as infrequent assessment of exercise habits. Using specialized software and painstaking spreadsheet data entry, the team was able to pool the information together in a way that the effects of exercise could be compared.
The scientists focused specifically on particular demographics and age brackets, and only how they related to episodic memory. They found that regular aerobic exercise can positively influence episodic memory in people over 55 without dementia.
“Everyone always asks, ‘How much should I be exercising? What’s the bare minimum to see improvement?’” said Aghjayan. “From our study, it seems like exercising about three times a week for at least four months is how much you need to reap the benefits in episodic memory.”
The analysis also revealed insights around who stands to benefit most from regular physical activity. This indicates that the earlier we start to form habits in this area, the better chance we have of retaining our episodic memory as we move into the latter stages of life.
“We found that there were greater improvements in memory among those who are age 55 to 68 years compared to those who are 69 to 85 years old – so intervening earlier is better," said Aghjayan.
The research was published in the journal Communications Medicine.
Source: University of Pittsburgh