Can Exercise Ward Off Dementia and Improve Your Memory?

If the heart is pumping, so is the brain, according to a study just released by the Mayo Clinic. In this month’s issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Ahlskog et al. did a meta-analysis of over 1600 papers (with 130 having a direct bearing) to determine whether physical exercise can attenuate cognitive impairment and reduce dementia. In other words, is there any evidence of a cognitive neuroprotective effect from exercise?

Exercise Improves Brain Function

 Exercise and Dementia

Not only did the researchers discover that exercise is beneficial in this regard, they found that it significantly reduced the risk of dementia. Patients who already had documented dementia or mild cognitive impairments were found to improve their cognitive scores after 6 to 12 months of exercise, as compared to their sedentary peers. In addition, healthy adults also demonstrated significantly improved cognitive scores after a year of aerobic exercise. Simply put, exercise makes the brain younger and smarter!

Improved Memory and Cognition

Besides improved cognition, the brain can actually grow in size too. After one year, hippocampal volumes increased, as did spatial memory. Additionally, age-related gray matter volume loss was slowed down. Both of these results were confirmed through cross-sectional studies comparing physically fit seniors with unfit seniors.

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging

In functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), brain cognitive networks showed increased connectivity after 6 to 12 months of exercise, perhaps because exercise facilitates neuroplasticity through a variety of biomechanisms, all leading to improved learning.

What’s the Best Exercise for your Brain Function?

But what type of exercise is best for achieving improved cognitive functioning? Ahlskog et al. broadly define exercise as enough aerobic activity to raise the heart rate and increased the body’s need for oxygen. Under this definition, sweeping, raking leaves, walking the dog, and similar types of movement would qualify, which should be heartening to people of all ages.

According to Dr. Ahlskog:

“You can make a very compelling argument for exercise as a disease-modifying strategy to prevent dementia and mild cognitive impairment, and for favorably modifying these processes once they have developed. Whether addressing patients in primary care or neurology clinics, we should continue to encourage exercise for not only general health, but also for cognitive health.”

[box type=”important”]Based on this, and previous research, it seems clear that aerobic activity both helps prevent or slow down cognitive decline, as well as restoring some lost function for people who already are cognitively impaired. Moving the body makes the mind smarter, and once it’s smarter, it could then have enough power to convince the body to keep exercising![/box]


  1. Reference:
  2. Ahlskog, J.E. et al. 2011. Physical Exercise as a Preventive or Disease-Modifying Treatment of Dementia and Brain Aging, Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 86( 9),  876-884.

Alexandra Williams

Alexandra Williams, MA (counseling) is one-half of humorous expert fitness advice columnists, Fun and Fit, which she writes with her identical twin sister, Kymberly Williams-Evans, MA.

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