Can exercise prevent memory loss and improve cognitive function?

Answer From Jonathan Graff-Radford, M.D.

Possibly. Exercise has many known benefits for both physical and mental health, including reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, strengthening the bones and muscles, and reducing stress.

It also appears that regular physical activity benefits the brain. Studies show that people who are physically active are less likely to experience a decline in their mental function and have a lowered risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. Physical activity is one of the known modifiable risk factors for dementia. Plus, regular exercise helps combat other Alzheimer's disease risk factors, such as depression and obesity.

Exercising several times a week for 30 to 60 minutes may:

  • Keep thinking, reasoning and learning skills sharp for healthy individuals
  • Improve memory, reasoning, judgment and thinking skills (cognitive function) for people with mild Alzheimer's disease or mild cognitive impairment
  • Delay the start of Alzheimer's for people at risk of developing the disease or slow the progress of the disease
  • Increase the size of the part of the brain that's associated with memory formation (hippocampus)

Physical activity seems to help your brain not only by keeping the blood flowing but also by increasing chemicals that protect the brain. Physical activity also tends to counter some of the natural reduction in brain connections that occurs with aging.

More research is needed to know how — and how much — adding physical activity may improve memory or slow the progression of cognitive decline. Nonetheless, regular exercise is important to stay physically and mentally fit. And for older adults, even leisurely physical activity offers health benefits.

With

Jonathan Graff-Radford, M.D.

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May 12, 2021 See more Expert Answers

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