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Can exercise slow down cognitive decline?


Research suggests not only aerobic exercise but also strength training can benefit the aging brain.
Research suggests not only aerobic exercise but also strength training can benefit the aging brain. (Photo by Laura Segall)

Research suggests not only aerobic exercise but also strength training can benefit the aging brain. (Photo by Laura Segall)

Aging is characterized by a decline in cognitive functioning, especially in the domains of executive function (the mental skills that help people get things done); processing speed (the speed at which the brain processes information); and episodic memory (the memory of events or episodes). These age-related declines are made worse by cardiovascular disease (CVD) and risk factors for the disease, such as hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and elevated cholesterol levels.

Many recent studies have shown that exercise programs may slow the progression of aging- and CVD-related cognitive decline. Researchers from VA and Boston University's Memory Disorders Research Center and the Pittsburgh VA Geriatric Research, Education, and Clinical Center reviewed previous studies to clarify the impact aerobic exercise has on these patterns.

The research team concluded that the cognitive domains most affected by aging and CVD are exactly the same functions that benefit from aerobic exercise. They say such exercise in older adults leads to improved health and well-being and better clinical outcomes. Available MRI studies reinforce their conclusion that aerobic exercise has a positive impact on the brain's structural integrity, although less evidence is available for older adults with CVD.

Although the review focused on aerobic exercise, the authors noted that recent reports have indicated that resistance training—such as lifting weights—may have a positive impact on cognitive performance and brain function. Also, the studies suggest that different types of cardiorespiratory training may impact different cognitive functions and distinct brain regions.

The authors recommend additional research on the impact of specific exercise programs, such as strength and aerobic training; the frequency, intensity, and duration of exercise; and the effects of combined training on a range of cognitive functions. Finally, they suggest that simply avoiding sedentary behavior and its harmful effects may also positively impact cognition and the brain. (Current Geriatrics Reports, December 2014)


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