Memory loss is a common concern among aging individuals. Although there is some expected decline in memory with progressing age, this decline should show up as no more than a mild symptom—more of an annoyance than a serious concern. Memory loss with normal aging might manifest as a word stuck “on the tip of the tongue,” or taking longer to learn and recall a list of items.

The symptoms are concerning when details or names are forgotten on a regular basis. Everybody is allowed a memory lapse here and there—it is the pattern and regularity of symptoms that would raise alarm. For instance, regularly misplacing objects, missing appointments, forgetting to pay bills, paying the same bills twice, or getting lost driving in familiar areas are symptoms that should trigger evaluation by a physician.

Mild cognitive impairment is the term that is globally applied to patients who have objective memory loss but are able to function well within social or occupational spheres. There are many causes of mild cognitive impairment, ranging from depression to vitamin deficiency to underlying degenerative disorders of the brain. Physicians should perform thorough evaluations to ascertain the cause.

Millions of older adults are diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, and for most it is a limbo state—not quite normal, but certainly not demented. Where does this leave them? Well, it is certainly concerning, because 10 percent of patients with mild cognitive impairment progress to develop dementia each year.

Exercise: What Recent Studies Show

Even worse, there are no medications that are approved to treat mild cognitive impairment. Physicians often take a “wait and see” approach. However, medical studies do support steps that a person can take to improve memory function and to improve the odds of stability or improvement. I tell my patients to eat a well balanced diet, control blood pressure and cholesterol aggressively, moderate alcohol intake, and most importantly, get active.

Many older patients are reluctant to start an exercise regimen, but I strongly advocate that my patients start a regimen of aerobic exercise and weight training, initially with the guidance of a physical therapist or trainer. Over the past few years, a number of studies have demonstrated improvement in cognitive task performance in patients with mild cognitive impairment who exercise.

Most recently, a study of older women with mild cognitive impairment found that after six months, resistance/weight training was more effective than balance and stretching exercise in improving memory. (However, balance exercises improved overall stability and reduced falling.)  Members of a third group, which did aerobic exercise, became more fit, but received no cognitive benefit compared with the control group.

However, the most rigorous study on the topic of aerobic exercise and memory loss  revealed that high-intensity aerobic exercise does improve memory, and—of note—the women in that study actually obtained significantly more cognitive benefit than the men.

What’s the bottom line?

Older women who are diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment can empower themselves and improve their memory. They should start an exercise program combining aerobic training (walking/jogging/bicycling), resistance training (weights) and balance training (Tai Chi, Yoga, Pilates). There are many gyms that offer classes combining these modalities in a fun way. So don’t be scared to pump the iron! It’s good for your brain.

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  • Maryl May 15, 2012 at 9:15 am

    I do yoga, zumba and weights class so I will keep them all up. Interesting to note though is that we can train the mind to also stall off some dementia. I wrote about cognitive reserve last fall when reviewing the de Kooning exhibition at MOMA, Some of his best work was produced as de Kooning was beginning to lose his mind.

  • Paul May 14, 2012 at 10:33 am

    Thanks for another life-enhanciong article.

    This also works for men and at 73 years old, I can say that a YMCA senior membership and regular Silver Sneakers classes have been a wonderful incentive for me to get in good shape, with a side benefit of socialization.

    I personally know and talk with men in their mid-eighties and one man of 96 (Charlie) at the Y in West Chester PA who pump significant iron (as in olympic barbell multiple repetions with 45 pound weights on eah end)

    The next step after knowing it is to just do it.