As we age, topics such as memory loss, cognitive decline, and dementia will come up more frequently in conversations with friends, family, and health care providers. At the same time, the latest research findings on causes, treatments, and prevention will continue to be highlighted in daily news headlines, the books we read, the newsletters we subscribe to, and our favourite TV shows and podcasts.
Why the intense interest in such topics?
Declining cognitive function—things like memory, attention, awareness, reasoning, and judgement—is the leading cause of disability and death in older adults (1;2). But there may be ways to improve cognitive function (1;3;4). How? By taking advantage of the brain’s neuroplasticity (1).
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change and make new connections when met with things like damage, defects, new information, stimulation, or development. This concept goes against past beliefs that the brain is “hard-wired”, with newer and emerging evidence demonstrating that the brain can, in fact, reorganize itself (5). Take, for example, physical exercise in the form of aerobic or strength training. In older adults, physical exercise has been shown to lead to changes in how the brain is connected and structured, as well as how it functions (1;6-8).
What the research tells us
A recent systematic review found that combining physical activity and brain training can improve cognitive function in older adults, regardless of whether they have mild cognitive impairment or not. Here, physical activity included aerobic exercise, strength training, or both, while brain training included tasks that trained one or multiple areas of cognitive function. Those exposed to a combination of physical and cognitive exercise benefited more than those taking part in usual care/doing nothing, or those doing physical activity alone. Interestingly, a combined physical and cognitive exercise program was not any better than doing brain training on its own. However, this finding shouldn’t encourage people to drop physical exercise from their strategy to stay cognitively healthy; because the benefits of exercise stretch far beyond brain health to include physical, mental, and social health as well. Rather, these findings should motivate people to add brain training to their new or existing physical activity routines.
The review also looked at whether the nature of the combined program—things like the length of the program or duration and frequency of training sessions—mattered. Apparently, the answer is…not so much. Short (<12 weeks), medium (12-13 weeks), and long (≥ 24 weeks) programs were all helpful, as were low (1 times/week), medium (2 times/week), and high (≥3 times/week) frequency training sessions. Sessions of short (≤ 45 min) and medium (> 45 to ≤60 min) duration also produced gains, whereas long (>60 min) sessions didn’t (although there wasn’t a huge difference between the three groups). Because the evidence base is sparse, more research is needed to understand how these factors interact with each other.
Instead, what may seem to matter more with these combined programs is whether physical activity and brain training are done at different times—such as one after another—or simultaneously, through activities like tai chi, dance, martial arts, or video games that involve exercise. Here, the latter—so doing brain and physical training simultaneously—showed the potential to be more effective. While this combined strategy is promising, further research will need to explore how well this approach works over the long-term (1).
Hoping to stay sharp as you age? Exercising both your body and your brain together can help!