(TND) — Stay active to stay sharp as you age.
That’s a common thought, and it’s not necessarily wrong.
But a new study, to the surprise of those running it, did not find evidence that exercise and mindfulness training had positive impacts on brain function in older people.
“Based on a lot of observational evidence, as well as some smaller clinical trials, we expected to see that older adults who engage in exercise would show improvements in memory and thinking as well as improvements, maybe increases, in the size of the structures of their brain that underlie those aspects of cognition,” study co-author Dr. Eric Lenze said.
“We found no positive effects of either intervention, the mindfulness or exercise, on any aspect of cognitive function, or in any brain structure that we studied,” he said.
Still, Lenze said exercise and mindfulness have many benefits for people as they age. These results should not dissuade people from doing either.
Lenze, a clinical trialist and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and his fellow researchers examined a group of 585 people between 65 and 84 years old. They screened for dementia, and the participants were a relatively healthy bunch.
The study spanned five years, and most participants completed 18 months of trial time.
“In the kind of world of these kinds of studies, this was a very large study,” he said.
The results were published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The participants were studied at two locations, St. Louis and San Diego, and they were broken into one of four groups: a group that exercised, a group that took part in mindfulness training, a group that did both, and a group that did neither.
The control group took part in health education classes.
Physical fitness participants took part in aerobic, strength and balance exercises in both group-class and home settings.
The mindfulness training group met weekly and later monthly.
Lenze said meditation is a way to practice mindfulness.
“In the simplest way, I would call it the act of paying attention, but in a certain way,” Lenze said of mindfulness. “Paying attention to the present in a nonjudgmental way.”
Assessments were done with a mix of verbal memory tests, computerized cognitive tests, and brain scans.
The size of the hippocampus shrinks with aging, Lenze said. They looked for positive changes in the hippocampus and frontal lobes.
“These are all well-known tests. We did a whole battery of these tests. They're exactly the kind of tests that have been frequently done in the past to show the benefits of certain interventions,” Lenze said.
Science is continuously trying to prove its ideas wrong, and these unexpected, possibly disappointing, results might open doors for new theories, new studies, new understandings, and new breakthroughs to help people, he said.
“I think what this highlights is that there's a lot we don't understand about the brain,” he said.
Lenze doesn’t want people to be discouraged by the results and stop exercising.
And if you get benefits from practicing mindfulness now, like help with your anxiety, don’t give that up, either.
“Does this mean exercise doesn't work? Well, no, it does not mean that,” he said. “Well-done studies have definitively shown exercise is good for older adults. It's also good for middle age and younger adults. But, in a nutshell, if you're an older adult, exercise helps keep you out of a nursing home. Frankly, that ought to be all anyone needs to know in order to say should I exercise or not. In short, the answer is yes, and this study doesn't change any of that.”