Exercise and Cognitive Function

Cognitive function decline is a common concern for many seniors—and as the population of older adults continues to grow, experts suspect that it may grow into a broader public health issue. Symptoms of cognitive decline include confusion, slower thinking, difficulty concentrating, and memory loss. Some older individuals experience only mild cognitive impairment; however, for others, these symptoms can be an early harbinger of progressive diseases like Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.

The Prevalence and Impact of Cognitive Decline

According to a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), around 1 out of every 9 adults in the US (or 11%) reported symptoms of cognitive decline. In 2020, it was estimated that 5.8 million Americans had Alzheimer’s—a number that is expected to grow substantially in the coming decades.

Cognitive decline and dementia can have a significant negative impact on seniors’ well-being and quality of life. Often, individuals experiencing cognitive impairment are less likely to be able to perform activities of daily living and self care, which in turn may make it difficult or impossible to continue living independently. In some cases, cognitive decline has also been linked to poorer health outcomes, particularly among individuals who are already dealing with chronic health problems.

The Mental Benefits of Exercise

As of yet, there’s no cure available for age-related cognitive decline or dementia, although there are treatments that can help manage or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s. However, research suggests that lifestyle factors such as exercise can play a big role in helping individuals preserve or restore cognitive function as they age. Here’s a brief summary of how physical activity can help keep you sharp in your golden years:


1. Exercise Helps Preserve Memory

As we age, our hippocampus (the part of the brain involved in memory) tends to shrink. However, brain scans revealed that people who exercised consistently actually showed an average increase in hippocampus size. This is likely related to the fact that exercise is known to result in higher levels of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF helps promote growth and connection between neurons, and has been implicated in learning and memory processes.

A recent meta-analysis of 28 scientific studies found that moderate-intensity exercise “significantly improves WM [working memory] in older adults.” Researchers found these results to hold true for a variety of intervention periods, even those as short as eight weeks.


2. Exercise Can Reduce Risk of Dementia

In addition to helping preserve memory, exercise may also help stave off Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. People who exercise regularly in mid-life, for example, have a 30% less chance of developing dementia, and a 45% less chance of developing Alzheimer’s.

What’s more, for people who are already struggling with cognitive decline, exercise may help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms or slow the progression of the disease. Research indicates that physical activity releases a peptide called irisin, which can help reduce neuroinflammation. Neuroinflammation is thought to be a hallmark of Alzheimer’s, and mitigating its effect may in turn have a therapeutic effect on the brain.


3. It Improves Cognitive Function

Whether you prefer tennis or Tai Chi (or both!), there’s good news: exercise and cognitive function in the form of selective attention, cognitive flexibility, inhibition, and visuospatial perception are positively correlated.

Interestingly, one study found that different types of exercise may have different benefits. Researchers measured the differences between participants who engaged in open- and close-skilled forms of exercise. Open-skilled exercise is defined as exercise that takes place within a changing environment and requires participants to react to dynamic stimuli (like tennis, or most other forms of multiplayer sports). On the other hand, closed-skill exercise typically involves repetitive, specific behaviors and does not require that participants react to environmental changes (for example, jogging, swimming, or Tai Chi).

The study showed that the individuals who participated in open-skilled physical activity showed significant improvements in selective attention and inhibition skills, as well as cognitive flexibility. Conversely, the closed-skill group showed significantly better scores for selective attention and visuospatial perception.

How Much Exercise Do Seniors Need?

Experts agree that in general, any amount of exercise is better than none. So, even if you only have the time or energy for a short walk or workout session, it’s still worth doing.

However, for optimal results, the CDC recommends that older adults get around 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity. The ideal exercise routine for seniors incorporates a mixture of moderate- and/or vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (for example, walking or jogging), muscle-strengthening activities (such as lifting weights or using resistance bands), and balance activities.

At Seabury, we’re committed to helping our Residents maintain their physical and cognitive health. Seabury provides peaceful living opportunities for adults ages 50 and older looking for fulfilling, independent lifestyles. Our philosophy centers the physical, emotional, and spiritual wellness of our Residents. Living options range from independent apartments and villas to cottages as well. Our continuum of care model is designed to make Residents’ lives as comfortable as possible. Your Life Plan Contract at Seabury, should you require it in the future, also includes a transition to assisted living, memory support, and nursing care services for the same monthly fee. Contact us today for more information!