Combination of exercise and computer use may reduce memory loss

For frequent computer users, the strength of their memory may be just as powerful as the memory in the machines they work with.

New research from the Mayo Clinic has revealed that a combination of moderate exercise along with mentally stimulating activities, such as using a computer, help decrease the chances of having memory loss in people older than 70 years old.

The combination of the two activities was found to protect memory function more than just computer use or exercise alone.

“We know that from our previous studies, physical exercise is independently associated with better memory and computer use is independently associated with better memory,” said study’s author, Dr. Yonas Geda, a physician scientist with Mayo Clinic in Arizona and a member of the American Academy of Neurology.  “We found that this combination had a synergistic interaction.  It means two plus three becomes eight instead of just five.”

Geda and his team studied 926 people between the ages of 70 and 93 in Olmstead County, Minn.  Each participant filled out a questionnaire regarding their computer use and physical exercise within the past year.  The study then analyzed the participants’ responses compared with their risks of having mild cognitive impairment (MCI) – the transitional stage between traditional memory loss that comes with aging and early dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Of the people who did not use a computer and did not exercise, 20.1 percent had normal cognition, while 37.6 percent showed symptoms of MCI.  For the opposite participants – those who exercised and used a computer – 36 percent were cognitively normal and only 18.3 percent showed MCI symptoms.

Out of the different types of exercises people reported, moderate exercise – such as brisk walking, hiking and aerobics – combined with computer use had the biggest benefit on memory compared with both mild and vigorous exercise.

“We have scratched our heads about this,” Geda said.  “In the paper, we found the most beneficial exercise in terms of frequency was five to six times per week, not daily.  And the most beneficial is moderate, not vigorous.  We don’t exactly know why this is.”

Because the survey relied on participant response, Geda said the team has a lot more research to do in order to better understand their results.  But they have an idea as to why the exercise and computer combination was so beneficial.

“Our argument is that perhaps the physical exercise increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain, and then the computer activity enhances the communication between nerve cells,” Geda said.  “So the exercise brings the resources and raw material, and then the computer activity is implementing it.”

Until they better understand the science behind their findings, Geda said that for people older than 70, it doesn’t take much to improve their memory function.

“People try to do things perfectly when they’re exercising,” Geda said. “But we’re talking about people above age 70 doing both mentally stimulating activities and exercise in moderation without feeling pressured.”

The study was published in the May 2012 issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings.