Age-related health impairments affect not just the body but also the mind. Scientists refer to its mental symptoms as “mild cognitive impairment” (MCI): sufferers misplace things, can’t recall the name of the neighbour they’ve just been talking to, or become generally less responsive. They might also experience a deterioration in their capacity for speech, planning or spatial awareness.

“What makes MCI different to dementia is that people with dementia need help with everyday tasks, whereas those who do not suffer from dementia can go about their daily life independently,” explains Patrick Eggenberger, a PhD student at ETH’s Institute of Human Movement Sciences and Sport. Together with his research colleagues, headed by senior lecturer Eling de Bruin, Eggenberger demonstrated in a recently published study that older people who simultaneously train their bodies and minds perform better at cognitive tasks. The senior citizens who participated in the study improved not only their physical fitness but also their mental acuity; as a result, they avoided the mild cognitive impairments mentioned above – even months after their targeted physical exercise programme had ended.

Dancing, running, memorising

To conduct the study, the ETH researchers recruited 89 healthy seniors of both sexes who either still live independently or receive only minimal care in a retirement home. Aged between 70 and 94, the participants were divided into three groups. One group went through a video training programme to learn a dance with a particular series of steps. A second group was given exercises on a treadmill and memory training at the same time. The third group did the treadmill walking exercises only. All three groups also received training to improve their balance and strength. Each of the participants was tested for various cognitive abilities at the start of the six-month training period, three months in, and at the end of the period. Of the 71 people who completed the programme, 47 were available for a comparison test one year later. This marked the first time that data could be gathered over a relatively long timeframe. Another positive feature of this study was the comparatively high proportion of men taking part, at around 35 percent.

Multitasking in day-to-day life

These tests show that combined training is particularly effective for what are known as executive functions. This term comes from brain research and refers to those mental abilities that control human thought and behaviour – in other words, abilities that help us live our lives from day to day. Multitasking is one such ability: it is an essential skill for negotiating road traffic for instance, when we must concentrate simultaneously on traffic signals and other road users. Executive functions are located in the front of the brain. “This is the region of the brain that shrinks most quickly with age,” Eggenberger explains. “That’s why it’s so important to exercise it.”

In order to demonstrate their mental fitness for example, the participants in the study had to connect together randomly distributed numbers on cards as quickly as possible. Another test had them connect alternate numbers and letters in the right sequence, following the pattern 1A, 2B, 3C and so on. Regardless of gender, the people who had trained mind and body simultaneously performed better.

Training with long-term effects

It was no surprise for the researchers to see that the training was a success. What did surprise them was the fact that participants’ cognitive performance was almost unchanged a year after the programme had ended. “We would have expected a major reduction,” Eggenberger says. After all, comparable tests of physical ability alone have highlighted a significant loss of performance over time following a halt in training.

“This leads us to hope that we can use targeted training to combat age-related cognitive decline – not least because the people really enjoyed taking part,” Eggenberger is happy to report. All the senior citizens gave the training top marks for enjoyment, and some of them were even motivated to continue working on their fitness. “A number of the participants told us that they now go regularly to the gym,” he adds.

Sufferers could also benefit

Although the study was conducted using healthy people, Eggenberger believes there is potential to use this kind of targeted training programmes in retirement homes and hospitals – especially with people who already suffer from mild cognitive impairment or are showing early signs of dementia. “In sufferers, the training could well have an even bigger effect,” he says. It might seem a paradox at first, but the explanation is simple: “Someone who has done very little exercise or sport in the past will very quickly make lots of progress. Perhaps we can say the same thing about brain activity.”

This article is published in collaboration with ETH Zurich. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Astrid Tomczak-Plewka is a contributor at ETH Zurich.

Image: People use wooden dumbbells during a health promotion event. REUTERS/Yuya Shino.