Study finds seniors over 85 who exercise scored higher on cognitive tests

By Michelle Jaffee

Seniors aged 85 to 99 years old who regularly do both aerobic and strength-training exercises scored higher on cognitive tests than those who are sedentary or limit their exercise to only cardio, according to research led by neuroscientists in UF’s College of Public Health and Health Professions.

The study, published July 31 in the journal GeroScience, included 184 cognitively healthy participants who self-reported their exercise habits and general physical activities and then underwent a comprehensive battery of neuropsychological tasks to capture their cognitive abilities.

Brian Ho
Brian Ho

“We found that engagement in exercise in very old age appears related to better cognition, particularly for tasks requiring quick thinking and flexibility in approach,” said lead author Brian Ho, a Ph.D. candidate in clinical and health psychology. “In addition, we found that the best performances on cognitive tasks were from individuals engaging in both aerobic exercises and strength training exercises.”

Nearly 70% of participants reported engaging in at least some form of physical exercise, a percentage that exceeded the researchers’ expectations, Ho said, adding the finding suggests that exercising in older age is certainly feasible when in consultation with one’s doctor.

In addition to Ho and Ronald Cohen, Ph.D., his mentor and senior author of the paper, the research team included neuroscientists from UF’s Center for Cognitive Aging and Memory Clinical Translational Research; the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institutes at the University of Arizona, University of Miami and University of Alabama at Birmingham; and the University of Southern California.

On one test, the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA), 58 participants who comprised the “sedentary” group had a mean score of 24, while the “cardio” group of 60 participants had a mean score of 25.08 and the “cardio + strength training” group of 66 participants had a mean score of 25.28.

Elderly exerciseOther tests included the NIH Toolbox for the Assessment of Neurological and Behavioral Function; the Community Healthy Activities Model Program for Seniors (CHAMPS questionnaire); the Stroop Color and Word Test; and coding, symbol search and letter fluency tests.

After controlling for years of education, the researchers found the cardio + strength-training group had the highest cognitive performances overall and scored significantly better on coding and symbol search compared with the sedentary group. The cardio + strength-training group also scored significantly better on symbol search, letter fluency and the Stroop task compared with the cardio group.

Ho said it’s important to look at individuals with impressive longevity, such as the study participants, to try to characterize exactly what accounts for their durability.

“Our findings suggest engagement in a variety of forms of physical exercise may be an important component of that durability in people 85 years and older,” Ho said. “Moving forward, it could be exciting and fruitful to evaluate the use of physical exercise interventions in this age group to treat neurocognitive disorders, like mild cognitive impairment.”

Read the paper in GeroScience.