Exercise is known to greatly benefit the overall health of older adults. But a new study of nearly 600 seniors has found that neither exercise nor mindfulness improved cognitive function.
Exercise lowers the risk for cardiovascular problems, strengthens bones and improves mood, while mindfulness training reduces stress, said researcher Eric J. Lenze, MD, of Washington University. “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 colleagues followed the progress of 585 adults aged between 65 and 84 years. None had a dementia diagnosis, but all were concerned about issues with age-related cognitive decline, such as memory problems.
Participants were given cognitive tests and brain imaging scans at baseline. They were then assigned to groups that either participated in exercise training, mindfulness training or both. Another group simply learned about general health education topics.
At six and 18 months, all of the groups had similar results on new memory tests and brain scans, showing no significant improvement. Notably, there also was no decline in cognitive abilities.
Longer-term follow-up may produce different results, the investigators said. They are planning to track the same study subjects for five more years. In addition, the study did not investigate whether exercise or mindfulness might benefit older adults who already have dementia.
“We aren’t saying, ‘don’t exercise’ or, ‘don’t practice mindfulness’,” Lenze said. “I don’t think we can extrapolate from the data that these practices don’t help improve cognitive function in anyone.”