Sure, there are lots of good reasons to be active and eat right, and, especially at this time of year, many of us are thinking of cleaning up our act (Whole 30, anyone?). But here’s another encouraging reason to motivate you: A recent, albeit small, study in Neurology suggests that older adults who have some cognitive impairment (but not dementia) may improve their thinking skills with a bit of aerobic exercise and good nutrition.
One hundred sixty adults participated; they averaged age 65, were sedentary, and had some cognitive impairment. They were randomly put into one of these groups: those who did aerobic exercise, like walking or cycling for 35 minutes a few times a week; those who got nutritional counseling and ate a heart-healthy diet; those who exercised and ate better; and a control group who didn’t alter their habits in terms of diet or activity at all.
Diet, Exercise and Brain Function: Better Thinking, Clearer Mind
Half a year later, researchers checked in. The results: The people who were on an exercise program scored better on thinking tests than they did previously. The improvement represented the equivalent of reversing nearly nine years of aging! The gains were noticed in what’s called executive function—these are the skills needed for planning, problem-solving, and decision-making. It’s worth noting that participants did not improve on memory-specific tests.
“There are currently no proven medical therapies to stop or reverse age-related cognitive decline, and these lifestyle changes have the potential to delay the onset of dementia for years,” said lead study author James Blumenthal of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina.
These lifestyle changes have the potential to delay the onset of dementia for years.
Dietary changes didn’t seem to improve executive function. But the group who both exercised and followed the low-sodium, high-fiber DASH diet, which is known to help lower blood pressure, experienced the biggest gains in cognitive function, which includes cognitive processing speed.
The takeaway: While the study is small, it does lead one to believe that moving more and eating less can help keep us mentally sharp.