Aerobic exercise improves episodic memory in late adulthood: a systematic review and meta-analysis

Commun Med (Lond). 2022 Feb 17:2:15. doi: 10.1038/s43856-022-00079-7. eCollection 2022.


Background: Aerobic exercise remains one of the most promising approaches for enhancing cognitive function in late adulthood, yet its potential positive effects on episodic memory remain poorly understood and a matter of intense debate. Prior meta-analyses have reported minimal improvements in episodic memory following aerobic exercise but have been limited by restrictive inclusion criteria and infrequent examination of exercise parameters.

Methods: We conducted a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials to determine if aerobic exercise influences episodic memory in late adulthood (M = 70.82 years) and examine possible moderators. Thirty-six studies met inclusion criteria, representing data from 2750 participants.

Results: Here we show that aerobic exercise interventions are effective at improving episodic memory (Hedges'g = 0.28; p = 0.002). Subgroup analyses revealed a moderating effect of age (p = 0.027), with a significant effect for studies with a mean age between 55-68 but not 69-85. Mixed-effects analyses demonstrated a positive effect on episodic memory among studies with a high percentage of females (65-100%), participants with normal cognition, studies reporting intensity, studies with a no-contact or nonaerobic physical activity control group, and studies prescribing >3900 total minutes of activity (range 540-8190 min).

Conclusions: Aerobic exercise positively influences episodic memory among adults ≥55 years without dementia, with larger effects observed among various sample and intervention characteristics-the clearest moderator being age. These results could have far-reaching clinical and public health relevance, highlighting aerobic exercise as an accessible, non-pharmaceutical intervention to improve episodic memory in late adulthood.

Keywords: Hippocampus; Randomized controlled trials.