Study Finds That Exercise May Slow Memory Loss in Older Adults

Neurologists find that moderate exercise may slow cognitive decline by 10 years

Mar 23, 2016

New York

 a photo of a man and woman running next to another photo of illustration of brain

Researchers from NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) and University of Miami, with support from the National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, co-authored a study that may help older people slow their rate of cognitive decline.

The population-based observational study, published on March 23, 2016 in the online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, found that moderate to intense exercise in people over the age of 65 was associated with a slower rate of decline in memory and cognitive function.

Researchers studied data on 876 people enrolled in the Northern Manhattan Study (NOMAS), a research study of stroke and stroke risk factors in the Northern Manhattan community conducted at the Neurological Institute, Columbia University, Division of Stroke and Critical Care. Using an in-person questionnaire, participants were asked how long and how often they exercised during the two weeks prior to that date. Exercise was defined as the maximum intensity of any activity performed and was placed into two classification levels: no exercise to light intensity and moderate to heavy intensity.

Participants also received a brain MRI and a standard neuropsychological examination (NPE). The NPE tested a variety of different cognitive abilities, including processing speed, semantic memory, episodic memory and executive function. Five years later, participants received the examination again.

“The study found that people who did not exercise or exercised with only light intensity experienced cognitive decline that was equal to 10 more years of aging than people who reported exercise with moderate to heavy intensity,” says Dr. Mitchell S.V. Elkind, professor of neurology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, attending neurologist on the Stroke Service at NewYork-Presbyterian and an author on the study.

Of the participants, 90 percent reported light exercise or no exercise. Light exercise included activities such as walking and yoga. They were placed in the low activity group. The remaining 10 percent reported moderate to high intensity exercise, which included activities such as running, aerobics or calisthenics. They were placed in the high activity group.

“This research presents us with valuable information that may help people 65 and older retain their memory and thinking skills,” says Dr. Joshua Z. Willey, assistant professor of neurology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, assistant attending neurologist on the Stroke Service at NewYork-Presbyterian and lead author of the study. “The population of people 65 and older in the United States is increasing, and so should our efforts in helping these individuals do everything they can to live long lives with their memories intact.”

For those individuals who showed no signs of memory and thinking problems at the beginning of the study, researchers found that those reporting low to no activity levels showed a greater decline over five years than those with high activity levels. Participants were tested on how fast they could perform simple tasks and how many words they could remember from a list. The difference was equal to that of 10 years of aging. Researchers adjusted for factors that could affect brain health, such as alcohol use, smoking, high blood pressure and body mass index, and the 10 years difference remained.

“More research is needed to confirm these findings, but the results of the study are very favorable,” says Dr. Ying Kuen K. Cheung, professor of biostatistics at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and one of the study’s key researchers. “We can easily prescribe exercise to patients – it’s a low cost method that may help prevent memory decline.”

The study did not collect information on lifetime patterns of exercise, such as midlife exercise, which others have shown can have a significant effect on multiple outcomes associated with aging, including cardiovascular mortality and stroke. 

The authors declare no financial or other conflicts of interest.

The study was done in collaboration with the University of Miami and was supported by the National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NIH/NINDS K23 NS 073104). The study was funded by NIH/NINDS R37 NS 29993. The sponsor had no role in the design, methods, participant recruitment, data collections, analysis and preparation of the manuscript.

NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center

NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, located in New York City, is one of the leading academic medical centers in the world, comprising the teaching hospital NewYork-Presbyterian and its academic partner, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia provides state-of-the-art inpatient, ambulatory and preventive care in all areas of medicine, and is committed to excellence in patient care, research, education and community service. NewYork-Presbyterian also comprises NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, NewYork-Presbyterian/Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Westchester Division, NewYork-Presbyterian/The Allen Hospital and NewYork-Presbyterian/Lower Manhattan Hospital. The hospital is also closely affiliated with NewYork-Presbyterian/Hudson Valley Hospital, NewYork-Presbyterian/Lawrence Hospital and NewYork-Presbyterian/Queens. NewYork-Presbyterian is the #1 hospital in the New York metropolitan area, according to U.S. News & World Report, and consistently named to the magazine’s Honor Roll of best hospitals in the nation. For more information, visit

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