By pooling and analyzing data from dozens of experiments, a new study led by the University of Pittsburgh has found that exercise can help older adults retain their episodic memory. This refers to the capacity to recollect personal experiences which contain detailed information about what happened, when, and where.
When asked to describe the nature of episodic memory, “I usually like to talk about the first time you got behind the wheel of a car,” said study lead author Sarah Aghjayan, a doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh. “So you might remember where you were, how old you were, who was in the passenger seat explaining things to you, that feeling of excitement.”
While experiments in mice have already shown that exercise improves brain health and memory, studies investigating this link in humans had mixed results. In order to seek more clarity, Aghjayan and her colleagues pored over 1,279 studies, eventually narrowing them down to 36 which met specific criteria. By using specialized software to analyze the data, the researchers shown that a comparison of the 36 studies suggests that, for older adults, exercise has clear benefits for episodic memory.
Although the studies in themselves could not find clear correlations between exercise and improvements in memory, examining the whole body of research and comparing individual studies brought this pattern into focus. “When we combine and merge all this data, it allows us to examine almost 3,000 participants,” Aghjayan said. “Each individual study is very important: They all contribute to science in a meaningful way.”
The scientists found that there were greater improvements in episodic memory among participants who were 55 to 68 years old, compared to those with ages between 69 and 85. Moreover, the greatest effects of exercise were found in those who hadn’t yet experienced any cognitive decline and exercised about three times a week for at least four months.
Although further research is needed to clarify how the intensity of exercise affects the memory benefits, this study’s implications for public health are clear: exercise is an accessible way for older adults to mitigate cognitive decline, benefiting not only themselves but also their caretakers and the healthcare system in general.
The study is published in the journal Communications Medicine.