Benefits of Exercise on Thinking Abilities May Differ for Older Men and Women

Past studies have shown that exercise may be beneficial for those with Alzheimer’s and that it may promote neuron connectivity in older adults. A new study finds that when it comes to certain aspects of cognitive health, however, men and women may experience differing benefits with regular exercise.


Research recently published in Neurology, the journal of the American Academy of Neurology, examined the impact of physical and mental activities on thinking speed and memory. These are part of a person’s cognitive reserve, which is a buffer that allows for strong thinking skills despite a person’s brain showing signs of possible cognitive impairment and dementia. Researchers found that mental activities benefitted men and women in the same sort of way, but exercise did not.

Dr. Judy Pa, study author and neurosciences professor at the University of California, San Diego, says, “We found that greater physical activity was associated with greater thinking speed reserve in women, but not in men. Taking part in more mental activities was associated with greater thinking speed reserve for both men and women.”

For each additional mental activity participants reported doing – among reading, going to classes, or playing games – men saw, on average, 17 fewer years of aging in their thinking processing speed. For women, that was 10 years.


For physical activities, the benefit for women was such that even doubling reported activity could correspond to a thinking speed of someone 2.75 years younger. However, greater physical activity was not found to impact memory reserve in men or women. The team also found that for women who carried the high-risk APOE e4 gene associated with Alzheimer’s, the impacts of both types of activity were not as strong.

The study involved 758 participants with an average age of 76 who were either cognitively healthy, had mild cognitive impairment, or were living with dementia.

Though the researchers note that their study only shows an association between physical and mental tasks and cognitive reserve, not proof of a link, the findings could still encourage people to try to add such activities into their day-to-day lives.


Dr. Pa says, “As we have arguably few-to-no effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, prevention is crucial. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of treatment. To know that people could potentially improve their cognitive reserve by taking simple steps such as going to classes at the community center, playing bingo with their friends or spending more time walking or gardening is very exciting.”

So what’s a good amount of physical activity to start? The Mayo Clinic says exercising several times a week for 30 to 60 minutes may be beneficial for older adults looking to keep their brains healthy.

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