Exercise, mindfulness may not boost cognitive function in older people

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In a study from Washington University in St. Louis and elsewhere, scientists found exercise and mindfulness training do not boost cognitive function in older adults.

Researchers examined the cognitive effects of exercise, mindfulness training or both for up to 18 months in older adults who reported age-related changes in memory but had not been diagnosed with any form of dementia.

Exercise is good for older adults, and it can lower risk for cardiac problems, strengthen bones, improve mood and have other beneficial effects, and there has been some thought that it also might improve cognitive function.

Likewise, mindfulness training is beneficial because it reduces stress, and stress can be bad for the brain.

In the study, the researchers studied 585 adults ages 65 through 84. None had been diagnosed with dementia, but all had concerns about minor memory problems and other age-related cognitive declines.

All study participants were considered cognitively normal for their ages.

The researchers tested them when they enrolled in the study, measuring memory and other aspects of thinking. They also conducted brain-imaging scans.

The participants were assigned to one of four groups: a group in which subjects worked with trained exercise instructors; a group supervised by trained experts in the practice of mindfulness; a group that participated in regular exercise and mindfulness training; and a group that did neither, but met for occasional sessions focused on general health education topics.

The researchers conducted memory tests and follow-up brain scans after six months and again after 18 months.

At six months and again at 18 months, all of the groups looked similar.

All four groups performed slightly better in testing, but the researchers believe that was due to practice effects as study subjects retook tests similar to what they had taken previously.

Likewise, the brain scans found no differences between the groups that would suggest a brain benefit of the training.

The team says the study’s findings don’t mean exercise or mindfulness training won’t help improve cognitive function in any older adults, only that those practices don’t appear to boost cognitive performance in healthy people without impairments.

The researchers plan to continue following the group of adults who participated in this study.

If you care about brain health, please read studies about how the Mediterranean diet could protect your brain health, and Vitamin B supplements could help reduce dementia risk.

For more information about brain health, please see recent studies that MIND diet could improve cognitive health in older people, and after COVID-19, watch for these potential heart and brain problems.

The study was conducted by Eric J. Lenze et al and published in JAMA.

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