New research has unlocked the mechanisms behind why exercise can improve the memory. Long after the exercise is completed, there are lasting effects from exercise on the brain, making it one of the best ways to enhance cognition for all ages.
For people with mild cognitive impairment, it made a significant difference in their memories. Long-term results were seen in a group of adults aged 60+ who participated in either aerobics or stretching exercises for a full 12 months—and their brain scans proved exercise makes real changes to the brain.
Study participants took memory assessments and brain scans at the start and finish of their year-long fitness regimen. The group that engaged in aerobic exercise improved on their memory assessments by 47% after one year of exercise, but the group who only engaged in stretching only showed minimal improvements.
What was the difference that the type of exercise made? Stretching, while extremely beneficial and necessary, doesn’t raise blood flow as much as aerobic exercise does. The scientists then realized it was more about blood flow to the brain, rather than just moving the body.
The group that had done aerobic exercise showed lasting changes to their brains on their scans after the year ended. The areas of the brain that are involved in memory, such as the hippocampus and anterior cingulate cortex, showed increased circulation and blood flow in the post-study period neuroimages.
With this new information, we can start to distinguish which types of exercises should be prioritized for adults suffering from memory impairment. It suggests that there could be a reversal of memory loss when an emphasis is placed on getting blood flow to the brain. Although the study didn’t find out how long these changes lasted for the participants, the improvement on their memory test scores demonstrates that the beneficial results for memory are cumulative and build over time.
Thomas, Binu P. et al. “Brain Perfusion Change in Patients with Mild Cognitive Impairment After 12 Months of Aerobic Exercise Training’” 1 Jan. 2020 : 617 – 631.