Exercise and Mental Stimulation Boosts Memory

We all know that exercise is good for the aging brain and over all health. Surely the same can be said of mental exercises?

According to a report published in Behavioral Neuroscience (August Issue), based on animal testing results, older adults seem to benefit from "either or both mental and physical enrichment."

Behavioral Neuroscience is published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Neuroscientists at Yale University randomly assigned 160 young, middle-aged and old adult (about 3, 15, or 21 months old) female mice to an experimental (treatment) condition or control group. Treatment conditions included cages where mice could exercise on running wheels, play with toys, or cages with both for more complex enrichment. The control group’s cages did not have these devices. Both groups lived this way 24/7 for four weeks before starting the memory testing, and then during the testing.

After the first four weeks of treatment, the researchers tested the animals’ ability to find their way around a spatial water maze. This is a common test of learning and memory. Spatial memory is partly supported by the hippocampus, a region of the brain which is among the first to be affected by both normal aging and Alzheimer’s disease. This makes spatial memory a good indicator of "hippocampal health" in both animals and humans.

All the experimental mice showed age-impaired spatial memory; but the various treatments affected the each age group differently:

  • Exercise alone significantly improved the spatial memory of the young mice.
  • Both exercise alone and complex enrichment significantly improved memory among the middle aged; cognitive stimulation alone did not.
  • For old mice, all enrichments (alone or combined) significantly improved performance.

The results indicate that as we get older and become less able to exercise (physically), cognitive stimulation may help to compensate. The authors say that if this trend continues, "These data may suggest that enrichment initiated at any age can significantly improve memory function. And exercise plus mental challenge in middle age – when many people start to notice subtle memory changes – may offer the strongest, most widespread benefits for memory function."

The authors also remarked that exercise was essential to memory reinforcement in all age groups. Lead author Karyn Frick, PhD, says, "It is important for people of all ages to do 20 to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise several times a week.  Keeping a healthy and active brain may prevent memory decline in old age, but only a longitudinal study that follows mice over time could confirm this possibility."

Source: APA