Here’s yet another carrot to offer to your older-adult clients. According to a recent review of studies from the Netherlands, cardiovascular exercise may offer people over 55 a boost in brainpower.

Around age 50, even healthy older adults begin to experience mild declines in cognition, such as sporadic memory lapses and decreased ability to pay attention. Evidence shows that regular
exercise contributes to healthy aging, but could the type of exercise a person performs influence cognitive fitness?

Researchers at the University of Applied Sciences in Utrecht evaluated 11 randomized, controlled trials featuring a total of 670 participants aged 55 and older. The trials examined the effects of cardiovascular exercise on cognitive processing speed, memory and attention. The review appeared in a recent issue of The Cochrane Library (2008; [2]).

In this particular review, participants exercised 2–7 days a week for a number of weeks—3 months on average—and underwent fitness and cognitive function tests. Eight of the studies found that cardiovascular exercise programs increased participants’ VO2max by 14%. Cardiorespiratory improvements coincided with improvements in cognitive function—especially motor
function, cognitive speed and auditory and visual attention—when participants were compared with a group of nonexercising adults or adults in a yoga- or strength-based program.

“Aerobic physical exercises that improve cardiovascular fitness also help boost cognitive processing speed, motor function and visual and auditory attention in healthy older people,” said lead review author Maaike Angevaren, in a press release. “Improvements in cognition as a result of improvements in cardiovascular fitness are being explained by improvements in
cerebral blood flow, leading to increased brain metabolism which, in turn, stimulates the production of neurotransmitters and formation of new synapses.”

Despite the association between mental health benefits and cardiovascular training, researchers stopped short of confirming that cardiovascular exercise in particular was necessary for cognitive improvement.