Exercise, mindfulness don’t appear to boost cognitive function in older adults: In healthy older adults, neither led to measurable improvements after 6 months, 18 months

A large study that focused on whether exercise and mindfulness training could boost cognitive function in older adults found no such improvement following either intervention. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the University of California, San Diego, studied 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.

The findings are published Dec. 13 in JAMA.

“We know beyond any doubt that exercise is good for older adults, that 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,” said the study’s first author, Eric J. Lenze, MD, the Wallace and Lucille Renard Professor and head of the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University. “Likewise, mindfulness training is beneficial because it reduces stress, and stress can be bad for your brain. Therefore, we hypothesized that if older adults exercised regularly, practiced mindfulness or did both there might be cognitive benefits — but that’s not what we found.”

Lenze and his colleagues still want to see whether there may be some cognitive effects over a longer time period, so they plan to continue studying this group of older adults to learn whether exercise and mindfulness might help prevent future cognitive declines. In this study, however, the practices did not boost cognitive function.

“So many older adults are concerned about memory,” said senior author Julie Wetherell, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego. “It’s important for studies like ours to develop and test behavioral interventions to try to provide them with neuroprotection and stress reduction as well as general health benefits.”

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.

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