Exercise and Cognitive Skill

According to two studies in the January 25 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, participating in a sustained exercise program may decrease cognitive decline in patients over 55 years old.

The first study, Physical Activity and Incident Cognitive Impairment in Elderly Persons, found moderate or high physical activity was associated with a lower risk of developing cognitive impairment in German patients over 55 years old.

Moderate activity was defined as strenuous activities (including walking, hiking, bicycling, and swimming) performed fewer than three days per week.  High activity was defined as participation three or more times per week.

Physical activity cut in half the odds of developing incident cognitive impairment. Moderate physical activity had nearly the same effect as high physical activity.

With the growing population of older adults, the incidence of cognitive decline and dementia increases.  It is important to find reliable and inexpensive methods of preventing or delaying this decline.

In the second study, Resistance Training and Executive Functions, resistance training programs improved the cognitive skills – attention and conflict resolution – in Canadian women between the ages of 65 and 75 years old.  Investigators sought to examine the association between resistance training and improved cognition in older women.  This may have been the first study to do so.

Although resistance training has benefits over other training as it relates to falls and fracture prevention, it also benefits bone health, prevents muscle loss, and helps strengthen muscle mass. Most studies looking at the benefits of exercise for cognition have focused primarily on aerobic training.

The resistance training groups showed significant reductions in whole-brain volume compared with the control group, which participated in balance and tone-training classes.  Task performance improved in the once-weekly and twice-weekly resistance training groups. It deteriorated in the balance and tone group. This reduction is usually associated with poor cognitive function.

Cognitive benefits were found after 12 months of training but not at the 6-month trial midpoint. The authors surmised this could be due to the motor learning of new skills in the first few months of the study as participants became accustomed to the activity.

The message in the German study is to keep moving.  Health care providers should ask their patients about their physical activity and alert elderly patients to perform some sort of regular physical activity.

While exercise promotion typically favors an increase in walking, the message in the Canadian study is resistance training should be more widely promoted.  Emerging evidence shows resistance training not only has similar benefits as aerobic training, but is also an option for seniors with limited mobility.

Both studies provide promising evidence that physical activity in any form can improve cognitive function and is an important factor for improving health in older adults.

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