Mental and physical activity can help mitigate cognitive decline in older people, study says. (Fred Zwicky/Associated Press)
Exercising body and brain may improve memory and thinking in older people

THE QUESTION For older people starting to have a problem with memory or thinking skills, might more physical and mental exercise help mitigate the decline?

THIS STUDY involved 126 adults older than 65 (average age, 73) who were generally inactive and did not have dementia but had indicated that their memory and thinking skills had recently gotten worse. For three months, they followed one of four routines involving prescribed mental and physical activity, some strenuous and some mild, with each type done for an hour a day, three days a week. Some did computer games that challenged visual and auditory processing ability and took dance-based aerobics classes. Others did computer games and took classes that focused on stretching and toning. A third group watched educational DVDs on art, history or science and took dance aerobics. The fourth group watched the educational DVDs and took the stretching and toning classes.

A battery of tests given at the start and end of the study showed improvement in thinking and memory skills across the board, no matter the level of mental stimulation or the intensity of the physical exercise. The authors wrote that this suggests “that the amount of activity is more important than the type of activity.”

WHO MAY BE AFFECTED? Older adults. Some changes in cognitive skills are common with aging. It takes the brain longer to process information, so remembering where you left your keys, for instance, can take a bit longer. However, more-serious memory issues and thinking-related problems that inhibit normal daily activities may be signs of cognitive impairment or dementia.

CAVEATS Most participants were highly educated; whether the findings apply to others is unclear. Differences between the effects of physical and mental exercise might have emerged in a longer-lasting study.

FIND THIS STUDY April 1 online issue of JAMA Internal Medicine.

LEARN MORE ABOUT cognitive decline at (click “c” in topic index) and (search for “memory loss”).

The research described in Quick Study comes from credible, peer-reviewed journals. Nonetheless, conclusive evidence about a treatment's effectiveness is rarely found in a single study. Anyone considering changing or beginning treatment of any kind should consult with a physician.