Cardiorespiratory fitness in older adults improves memory performance. The researchers found that the greater the fitness level an older person had the greater they scored on memory tasks, compared to those with low cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF). Difficulty remembering new information is a common complaint among aging adults, and decreasing memory is a hallmark of early dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
The study included healthy young and older adults with ranging fitness levels. The researchers assessed their cardiorespiratory fitness by measuring the ratio of inhaled and exhaled oxygen and carbon dioxide. Participants also underwent MRI which collected information about the brain while they learned new concepts and remembered names associated with unfamiliar faces.
Overall, the older adults had more difficulty remembering the faces and names, compared to the younger adults. On the other hand, the degree to which older participants were able to recall the names and faces largely depended on their cardiorespiratory fitness level. Highly fit older adults had greater memory recall, compared to those with lower fitness level. They also showed greater activity in the brain regions that are most susceptible to age-related decline. Additionally, highly fit older adults had greater activation compared to younger adults in certain brain regions. This goes to show that cardiorespiratory fitness may have a compensatory role in age-related memory loss.
Corresponding author of the study Scott Hayes explained, “Importantly, CRF is a modifiable health factor that can be improved through regular engagement in moderate to vigorous sustained physical activity such as walking, jogging, swimming, or dancing. Therefore, starting an exercise program, regardless of one’s age, can not only contribute to the more obvious physical health factors, but may also contribute to memory performance and brain function.”
The researchers do not necessarily suggest that greater physical fitness will eliminate the risk of Alzheimer’s or cure the disease, but it can still offer great benefits to seniors in helping them maintain memory through aging.