Good news for those of you who make it a point to stay physically active: a recent experiment may suggest that regular exercise decreases the effects of age-related memory loss.
In a study published in the journal Cortex, a group of young people (18 to 31 years old) and a group of older folks (55 to 74) each completed a memory test and a fitness test.
To determine their memory chops, the participants had to essentially practice attaching a name to a new face—frequently a vexing task for people of a certain age. Instead of meeting strangers, they viewed pictures of unfamiliar faces, each attached to a name they had to learn—all while observed in an MRI machine.
The fitness test involved walking and running on a treadmill; by measuring the ratio of oxygen and carbon dioxide in their inhalations and exhalations, researchers could ascertain what’s called the cardiorespiratory fitness of each subject.
While overall the young ones had an easier time with the names and faces exercise, scientists found a distinct linkage in the older people between physical fitness and relatively good memory scores. (And thanks to the MRIs, we also know they demonstrated increased brain activity patterns when compared with the older couch potatoes.) In fact, some of the most fit older adults actually showed more brain activity than the young people in some areas.
Of course, no single study can convincingly make a scientific point. The study involved only 57 volunteers—hardly a definitive sample size. It’s possible that the more physically fit senior citizens also simply followed a healthier lifestyle—food choices seem to also play a key role in long-term brain health, along with getting adequate sleep, seeking treatment for any mental health issues, and meditating if possible. There were no control groups to eliminate these potentially confounding variables.
Still, there’s no downside to making sure you’ve added a reasonable amount of exercise into your schedule. Federal guidelines suggest 150 minutes of moderate activity per week, or 75 weekly minutes of heavier-duty activity, as well as two sessions of weekly strength training. However, according to TIME, only about 23% of adult Americans currently satisfy both conditions.
So if you find yourself struggling to remember what to call that new acquaintance you met the other day, don’t go reaching for that ginkgo biloba—lace up those sneakers instead.