fitness and memory

Fitness and memory - How fitness improves memory in mid-life

New British research has linked physical activity in the mid-30s with a significantly slower rate of memory decline in middle age. But it also suggests that this protective effect is lost in those who do not maintain their fitness.

Participants in this study, carried out by researchers from University College, London, were the study population of the Medical Research Council National Survey of Health and Development, also known as the British 1946 birth cohort. This initially consisted of 5,362 children born during one week in March 1946. The cohort has been studied on 21 occasions for a variety of reasons between birth and age 53 and has been shown to be a representative sample, in most respects, of the UK population born in the immediate post-war era.

For the current study, the researchers tested the association between two kinds of activity at 36 years – physical exercise and spare-time activity – with verbal memory at age 43 and 53 years in a total of 1,919 of the surviving members of the cohort.

Physical activity was assessed by a questionnaire asking about engagement in a choice of 25 sports and recreational activities in the previous month, with those who engaged in ‘any’ activity being compared with those who did ‘none’. Participants were also asked about current engagement in seven spare-time activities (eg chess, Church, the arts, voluntary work etc), with a total spare-time score obtained by adding activities together.

Both kinds of activity were significantly and positively associated with memory performance at age 43, independently of such other variables as sex, education, occupational social class, IQ and physical and mental health. Furthermore, physical exercise at 36 (but not spare time activity) was associated with a significantly slower rate of memory decline from 43 to 53 years. There was also evidence that continuing exercise after age 36 was important for protection, since those who gave up exercise after 36 years did not show the same benefit as those who were still exercising at age 43 or had taken it up for the first time.

The researchers comment: ‘Not only does this strengthen the suggestion of a causal link between physical activity and protection of memory in midlife, but it also implies that the cognitive benefit of physical exercise is enhanced by persistent or more recent activity. Conversely…these findings suggest that this benefit is lost if activity is not maintained.

‘Our study suggests,’ they conclude, ‘that uptake of physical exercise in young to middle adulthood benefits memory, an aspect of cognitive function likely to be important for conduct of activities of daily living during ageing. Furthermore, sustained physical activity appears to reinforce this benefit, whereas abandonment of this activity appears to result in its loss.

‘It is therefore important to investigate whether uptake of physical activity in later life can result in cognitive benefit or whether this is more likely to be observed following long-established patterns of activity. Continuing follow-up of this cohort will help to resolve this question.’

Social Science & Medicine 56(2003):785-792

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