How Exercise Can Reduce Memory Loss

According to new research by the University of Exeter and King’s College London, older people who experienced an increase in anxiety and depression as a result the pandemic have emerged with a diminishment in short-term memory that’s equivalent to six years. In over 50s, this jumped to the equivalent of five years in just 18 months. This cognitive decline is just worrying for several reasons, not least because it’s critical for the long-term health of the brain and can affect the likelihood of conditions such as dementia.

As we age, we naturally we lose neurons in the hippocampus, the area of the brain that plays an important role on learning and memory. Good sleep, amongst other things, can help fortify our mental agility by consolidating memories. When we lose sleep, whether it’s brought on by stress caused by the pandemic or a disrupted daily routine, that consolidation doesn’t happen as effectively, and the brain becomes overwhelmed.

When it comes to trying to reverse or stave off this mental decline, exercise is one of the best remedies. That’s because it triggers the growth of new cells in the hippocampus, helping to replace those cells which are otherwise diminished by age or stress. It does this by aiding the release of hormones which help foster health brain cell growth. Exercise also promotes brain plasticity by triggering the growth of new connections between cells in several key areas of the brain. It also increases the heart rate which supplies fresh, nutrient-packed oxygen to the brain.

Exercise is also a potent way to decrease inflammation in the brain, which would otherwise slow down the firing between neurons that causes brain function to become more sluggish. When that happens, memory is affected, as is the brain’s processing speed and overall cognitive function. The way exercise does this is by affecting what’s known as microglial activation. Within the brain, special immune cells known as microglia are constantly at work, surveying the environment for signs of damage and infection. They also work to direct the production of new neurons which facilitates good communication between the brain and other cells, and so generally help to improve overall cognitive function. As we age or experience trauma such as prolonged stress, these microglia become inappropriately activated, causing a rush of pro-inflammatory molecules to be produced. In recent studies, exercise has been shown to help negate the damaging effects of this onslaught, thus helping to reduce inflammation and improve cognitive function.

One of the major health implications of stress is an increase in prolonged exposure to stress hormones such as cortisol, which can negatively impact brain health. Chronic high cortisol is a major risk factor associated with the development of dementia, plus it can also induce Mild Cognitive Impairment and can damage the hippocampus. Although it might sound all doom and gloom, experts believe that just 20 minutes of moderate exercise a day could have a major impact in brain health and help ward off significant cognitive decline, including short term memory loss.