It is generally thought as normal to experience a decline in cognitive abilities as we age.  Although there are some normal cognitive effects of aging, such as a slower thinking speed and more difficulty in attention, other declines may be indicative of cognitive declines beyond the normal aging process.  Some of these symptoms include increased difficulty solving problems, having trouble following social cues, and quickly forgetting conversations or events.

Mild cognitive impairment and dementia are not always preventable as there are some genetic and medical histories that predispose people to declines which are more than expected with typical aging  (one example is a serious concussion).  However, over the past 10 years, there has been evidence emerging that a simple change to lifestyle can influence the severity and rapidity in which these declines occur.

Recent research has been done to determine how aerobic exercise influences cognitive health in older adults.   These studies have found that after 6 months of consistent aerobic exercise, most participants had increased scores on executive function and verbal scores.  They show that exercises which increase your heart rate help to increase the size of the hippocampus.  This region of the brain helps with verbal memory and learning.  Other forms of exercise, such as strength training, do not appear to have these same effects.

With this in mind, it seems one way to help preserve cognition (or even partially reverse declines) is to simply move.  There are many ways to incorporate daily aerobic exercise into life, even in the heat of summer or when the monsoon rains hit.  To begin with, just walking at a moderate pace can be beneficial.  This can be accomplished within your home with just a small space.  You can pace forward and backward 5-10 steps, walk back and forth down a hall, or even march in place.  If balance is an issue, marching in place while holding onto a chair or other solid piece of furniture can allow the same benefits without the risk of falling.  For those who do not have balance issues and have no concerns about walking, increasing the intensity by jogging in place will boost that heart rate even more.  Of course, if you can, getting outside for fresh air and sunshine can boost your mood and energy even more. Just make sure you walk at a pace that gets you slightly winded.

If you are musically inclined, simply putting on your favorite music and dancing to the music can provide this aerobic workout in a very enjoyable way.  There are many aerobic workouts available online as well.  Some of these are designed specifically for the more mature population and try to take into account balance or joint concerns.  These can be very beneficial for those who feel they would get bored with walking or have specific physical concerns they need to consider when working out.

Another option is to join a gym.  There are gyms all around our community, many of which cater to those over 55.  There are spinning and aerobic classes. You could walk on a treadmill or swim laps.  If you are an outdoors person, going for hikes several times per week is a great way to enjoy nature, get your heart rate up, and grow your hippocampus!   There are even machines you can use while sitting in a chair or on your couch, such as a mini elliptical or pedal machine, which can get you started on making exercise and movement a part of your daily routine.  Again, any activity that gets your heart rate going for at least 20 minutes a day can be beneficial to improving your cognitive abilities and brain function.

As someone who works with older adults on a daily basis, I can almost always tell the difference between those who exercise daily and those who do not.  This is seen in how easily they walk into the office as well as how mentally sharp they are.   In seeing these differences, I have even made a point of daily exercise for my own health by getting a standing desk and using an elliptical machine even while I write this article.  This changed my own life from sedentary sitting at a computer for more than 4 hours a day to getting more than 20,000 steps on most work days and I have not felt this good (cognitively and physically) in years.

Of course, as an audiologist, I have to add that improving your cognitive function through exercise can also help with hearing.   No, you won’t have better hearing levels, but with faster processing ability in the brain for sounds, your ability to process what you can hear (even with limited hearing abilities) will improve, making it easier to work with whatever hearing loss you may already have.

In the process of improving brain health, there are so many other benefits to aerobic exercise for general health and well-being.  We all know that exercise is beneficial in so many ways, yet it can be so hard to get up and move when we are tired and just want to sit.  All it takes is a couple of weeks of doing a little something and it becomes easier. So, get up and move!  Find something you love.  And, if you’re that person who hates exercising – find something you can tolerate or do while watching TV or doing something else you enjoy.  It can change your brain and change your life!


American Academy of Neurology. “Aerobics may be a smart workout for your brain at any age.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 13 May 2020. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/05/200513171130.htm>.

Ten Brinke, Bolandezedeh, Nagamatsu, Liang Hsu, et al. Br J Sports Med. “Aerobic Exercise Increases Hippocampal Volume in Older Women with Probable Mild Cognitive Impairment:  A 6-month Randomized Controlled Trial.” 20 Jul 2015