Study Results Suggest Exercise, Mindfulness Do Not Boost Cognitive Function in Older Adults


Although physical activity and the practice of being present in the moment are associated with many benefits, analysis shows that neither led to measurable improvements in brain health.

The use of exercise and mindfulness did not improve cognitive function, results of a study published in JAMA showed.

Investigators at the University of California in San Diego and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, studied the cognitive effects of exercise, mindfulness training, or both, for up to 18 months in older adults who reported age-related memory changes but were not diagnosed with any form of dementia.

“We know beyond any doubt that exercise is good for older adults, that it can lower risk for cardiac problems, strengthen bones, improve mood and have other beneficial effects, and there has been some thought that it also might improve cognitive function,” Eric Lenze, MD, the Wallace and Lucille Renard Professor and head of the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University, said in a statement.

“Likewise, mindfulness training is beneficial because it reduces stress, and stress can be bad for your brain. Therefore, we hypothesized that if older adults exercised regularly, practiced mindfulness, or did both, there might be cognitive benefits, but that’s not what we found,” Lenze said.

Investigators aimed to determine if there was a cognitive effect over a longer period. They included 585 individuals aged 65 through 84 years, who had not been diagnosed with dementia but were concerned with minor memory problems and other types of age-related cognitive decline.

All individuals were considered cognitively normal for their ages, and investigators evaluated them when they were enrolled in the study to measure their memory and other cognitive abilities. They also conducted brain-imaging scans.

The individuals were randomly assigned to 1 of 4 groups: 1 in which they worked with trained exercise instructors; 1 in which they were supervised by trained experts in mindfulness; 1in which they engaged in regular exercise and mindfulness training; and 1 that did neither but met for occasional sessions focusing on general health education topics.

Additionally, investigators conducted memory tests and follow-up brain scans after 6 months and again at 18 months.

At 6 months and 18 months, all groups looked similar, according to investigators.

All 4 groups performed slightly better in testing, but it could have been because of practice efforts, as individuals retook tests similar to those they had previously taken, investigators said.

Further, the brain scans did not show any differences in the groups that would suggest a brain benefit of the training.

“They are still engaging in exercise and mindfulness,” Lenze said.

“We didn’t see improvements, but cognitive performance didn’t decline either,” he said. “In the study’s next phase, we’ll continue following the same [individuals] for 5 more years to learn whether exercise and mindfulness training might help slow or prevent future cognitive declines.”

The findings do not necessarily mean exercising or mindfulness training cannot help improve cognitive function in any older individuals, Lenze said.

However, those things do not seem to boost cognitive performance in those who are healthy and without impairments.


Exercise, mindfulness don’t appear to boost cognitive function in older adults. EurekAlert. News release. December 13, 2022. Accessed December 14, 2022.

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