Weight Loss and Walking Exercise Improve Memory, Studies Find

Recent studies have found that both weight loss and walking exercise may improve or preserve memory.

Weight Loss

A new study led by John Gunstad, associate professor in Kent State University’s Department of Psychology, and a team of researchers from Cornell Medical College, Columbia University Medical Center, the Medical School of Brown University, and other medical schools, has found that weight loss improved memory and concentration in a group of 109 obese patients who underwent bariatric surgery.

The study, Improved memory function 12 weeks after bariatric surgery, will be published in a coming issue of Surgery for Obesity and Related Diseases, the Official Journal of the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery, and is available online via ScienceDirect.

The researchers tested cognitive functioning in 109 bariatric (weight loss) surgery patients and 41 obese control subjects in New York and North Dakota. Cognitive/ memory tests were given at the beginning of the study, and again 12 weeks after the surgery patients’ operations.

At the outset, many of the obese subjects in both groups showed impaired performance in the cognitive testing. When re-tested 12 weeks after bariatric surgery, “the surgery patients had improved memory performance at 12 weeks of follow-up …; however, the memory performance of the obese controls had actually declined,” according to the study authors.

“This is the first evidence to show that by going through this surgery, individuals might improve their memory, concentration and problem solving,” the study’s lead author, John Gunstad, told ScienceDaily. The research team tested the subjects before surgery, 12 weeks after surgery and one year after surgery, and will also test them two years after surgery.

Gunstad said that the researchers intend, as their next study, to test whether weight loss by normal, behavioral means (without surgery) will also correlate with improved memory.

As to why weight loss may affect memory, Gunstad explained, “A lot of the factors that come with obesity — things such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and sleep apnea — that might damage the brain are somewhat reversible,” Gunstad said. “As those problems go away, memory function gets better.”

Walking Exercise

Another recent study, published in the February 15, 2011 issue of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that moderate aerobic exercise over a period of one year increased the size of the hippocampus, which is associated with improved memory.

In this study, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Illinois, studied 120 healthy adults in their mid-60′s. The subjects were divided into two groups, one of which engaged in a supervised program of aerobic exercise, walking around a track three times per week, 40 minutes at a time (including stretching warm-up and cool-down). The other group engaged in various less aerobic toning exercises, including yoga and resistance training with bands, also under supervision.

After a year, brain scans showed that the hippocampus had increased in volume by about 2 percent on average among the walking/ aerobic exercise group, while it had declined by approximately 1.4 percent in the other exercise group. Both study groups improved on a test of spatial memory — tested by ability to notice and recall the location of dots on a computer grid — but the walkers improved more.

The finding that aerobic exercise could actually increase the size of the hippocampus in senior adults is significant, the researchers explained, because normally, “The hippocampus shrinks in late adulthood, leading to impaired memory and increased risk for dementia.” The study’s lead author, Kirk Erickson, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, told the New York Times that since that region of the brain normally shrinks by 1 to 2 percent a year in older adults, “a 2 percent increase is fairly significant.”

According to the study, researchers had previously known that the hippocampus is larger and shrinks less with aging in more physically fit adults, and that a larger hippocampus correlates with better memory. But scientists had not previously measured whether physical exercise could actually increase the size of the hippocampus in senior adults — meaning, actually reverse the brain shrinkage associated with the process of aging.

The authors cautioned that more study needs to be done, but concluded, “These theoretically important findings indicate that aerobic exercise training is effective at reversing hippocampal volume loss in late adulthood, which is accompanied by improved memory function.”

For more information on weight loss and exercise, see our resource pages on Wellness/ Healthy Living for Seniors and Caregivers, and our CaringTube™ video channel on Diet, Exercise & Fitness.

For information on Alzheimer’s/ Dementia, see our resource pages on Alzheimer’s/ Dementia.


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