Many women over 50, particularly those who are menopausal and post-menopausal, complain about diminishing cognitive function, sometimes referred to as “menopausal brain fog.” Typical problems include short-term memory loss, difficulties with attention or concentration, and decline in working memory. Higher-order cognitive processes – including reasoning, planning, decision-making, cognitive flexibility, and problem solving – may also decline.
While there is great awareness of the impact of memory loss given the very public attention to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, it is important to recognize that even slight impairment in any of these cognitive processes can impact the quality of daily functioning. As such, anything you can do as a woman over 50 to reduce the likelihood of decline will be of benefit to you.
A simple yet powerful preventive measure you can take is to engage in physical exercise. The effect of regular exercise on a host of positive health outcomes (heart, lung, bone, and muscle health, as well as mental health, to name just a few) is one of the most powerful findings in medical research. And how one’s brain works is one of those outcomes that exercises “affects.”
“Use it or lose it” may be a somewhat crude phrase, but it captures the importance of physical and mental exercise to maintain each. A recent study of women over 50 showed that individuals who engaged in regular exercise performed significantly better on cognitive functioning tests. The tests were the commonly administered Tower of London test, which detects deficits in planning ability, and the Benton Controlled Oral Word Association test, a verbal fluency test that measures spontaneous production of words belonging to the same category or beginning with the same letter.
On the exercise side of things, both aerobic and resistance exercises were examined in this study. Both forms of exercise conveyed cognitive benefits; women who did either aerobic activity or a resistance routine performed better on the cognitive tests than women who did no exercise. Simply put, women who moved their muscles – in whatever manner – had sharper minds! Of course it is well known that aerobic activity is specifically beneficial for heart and lung health, and resistance exercise for bone and muscle health, but it is encouraging to hear that research has shown that either type of activity keeps the brain keener.
A key point to keep in mind is that regular exercise is essential to gain the cognitive benefits. In a previous blog post on diabetes risk, I listed some ways to sustain a regular exercise routine, such as exercising with a friend, wearing an activity tracker and keeping a journal, and consciously reminding oneself, either in writing or recitation to oneself, of the benefits of exercise.
Women over 50 should not simply become resigned to significant memory loss or become lazy about thinking through problems or issues because they perceive decline in these areas to be inevitable. In fact, you might find more motivation knowing that exercise will offer an antidote to cognitive decline, in addition to the variety of things you should do to keep your mind active.
The bottom line is that whatever causes cognitive decline – be it the loss of estrogen due to menopause, depression, anxiety, or normal aging – exercise provides protection, so why not get moving? “Move it or lose it” is a very apt phrase applied to body and mind.