US researchers suggest aerobic exercise can improve memory and may prevent cognitive decline in older adults. They found that regular exercise over a year increased the size of the hippocampus, an area of the brain that makes memories.
The scientists studied 120 older people without dementia. Half began an exercise regimen of walking for 40 minutes three times a week. Half were limited to stretching exercises. Magnetic resonance images (MRI) and spatial memory tests were performed at the start, after six months and after a year.
Hippocampus volume increased by around 2% in people who did regular aerobic exercise. The same region of the brain decreased in volume by 1.4% in those who did stretching exercises, consistent with the decrease seen in normal ageing. Both groups improved from baseline in the memory tests.
Dr Simon Ridley, Head of Research at the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, the UK’s leading dementia research charity, said: “Although this study doesn’t look at memory loss in Alzheimer’s or dementia, it suggests it’s never too late to start exercising to help keep our brains healthy. Even modest exercise may improve memory and help protect the brain from normal decline caused by ageing.
“Increasing evidence suggests regular exercise and a healthy diet may help reduce our risk of developing dementia as well as reaping numerous other benefits from living a healthy lifestyle. 820,000 people in the UK have dementia, a number forecast to rise as our population ages. Much more research is needed if we are to minimise dementia risk for everyone, as well as develop new treatments that are desperately needed now.”