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Exercise Can Help Older Adults Retain Memories

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We all know exercise is good for us, but that still leaves plenty of questions. How much exercise? Who benefits the most? And when in our lives?

New research led by University of Pittsburgh psychologists pools data from dozens of studies to answer these questions, showing that older adults may be able to prevent declines in a certain kind of memory by sticking to regular exercise.

“Everyone always asks, ‘How much should I be exercising? What’s the bare minimum to see improvement?’ ” said lead author Sarah Aghjayan, a Clinical and Biological Health Psychology PhD student in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. “From our study, it seems like exercising about three times a week for at least four months is how much you need to reap the benefits in episodic memory.”

Episodic memory is the kind that deals with events that happened to you in the past. It’s also one of the first to decline with age. “I usually like to talk about the first time you got behind the wheel of a car,” said Aghjayan. “So you might remember where you were, how old you were, who was in the passenger seat explaining things to you, that feeling of excitement.”

Exercise that gets the heart pumping has shown promise in increasing brain health, and experiments in mice show that it improves memory—but studies looking at the same link in humans have come out mixed.

Seeking clarity in the muddy waters of the scientific literature, the team pored over 1,279 studies, eventually narrowing them down to just 36 that met specific criteria. Then they used specialized software and no small number of Excel spreadsheets to transform the data info a form where the different studies could be directly compared.

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