Researchers examined results from 28 volunteers, mostly in their late 60s or early 70s, who played word games on a computer and performed aerobic fitness tests on an exercise bike. They also studied a control group of young adults in their early 20s who completed just the language evaluations.
For the word games, participants were asked to name famous people such as authors, actors, and politicians based on 20 questions. They were also given definitions of 20 words rarely used in daily conversation as well as 20 very common words and asked whether they knew the word relating to the definition.
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Overall, compared to the younger participants, the older adults had more "tip-of-the-tongue" moments, when they thought they knew a word but were unable to produce it.
But older participants with higher fitness levels based on cycling tests had fewer of tip-of-the-tongue experiences than their similarly-aged peers who had more difficulty riding the exercise bikes.
"Language is a crucial aspect of cognition, necessary for maintaining independence, communication and social interaction in older age," said lead study author Dr. Katrien Segaert of the University of Birmingham in the UK.
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Cognitive function and language skills often decline with age even among healthy older adults, researchers note in Scientific Reports. While exercise and aerobic fitness has been linked to better cognitive abilities such as improved processing speed and memory in older adults, less is known about the connection between physical activity and language abilities.
While the exact reason for a connection between fitness and language isn't clear, and the amount of exercise needed for a benefit is also unknown, previous research has linked higher levels of physical activity and increased aerobic fitness to improved blood flow and brain health, Segaert said by email.
Still, difficulty finding words, or "tip-of-the-tongue" challenges, are common among elderly people and it makes sense to explore the potential for exercise to help, said Dr. Philip Gorelick, a researcher at Michigan State University in East Lansing who wasn’t involved in the study.
"The results are not surprising given that other cognitive domains are positively influenced by aerobic exercise," Gorelick said by email. "This study adds consistency to the study data that various cognitive domains are positively influenced by aerobic exercise."
Health officials in the U.S. and the UK advise people to get 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise a week.
"We don't know if this would be enough to improve language abilities, but this advice would be a good place to start," Segaert said. "Of course, many daily activities are a great way of getting exercise, such as climbing the stairs, rather than taking the elevator, and some health and fitness centers offer activities such as chair-based exercises for people with physical limitations."
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