Better aerobic health helps prevent ‘brain farts’ in old age, study finds

BIRMINGHAM, England — Ever find yourself trying to spit out a word, but you can’t seem to figure out what it is you want to say? A daily jog might help keep those “brain fart” moments from happening less frequently, especially as you get older. A new study finds that strong aerobic health levels are linked to an improved ability to find the words to express oneself in old age.

Researchers at the University of Birmingham found direct links between one’s overall aerobic fitness level and the prevalence of age-related language failures, or what they refer to as  “tip-of-the-tongue” statements. Tip-of-the-tongue moments are characterized by the strong conviction that the speaker knows the word they’re looking for, but just can’t quite remember it well enough to say it.

Elderly woman on phone
Older adults who find themselves struggling to find the right words may benefit from a daily jog, a new study finds.

“There are a lot of findings already on the benefits of aerobic fitness and regular exercise, and our research demonstrates another side of the benefits, namely a relationship between fitness and language skills,” says study lead author Dr. Katrien Segaert, in a university release. “We were able to show, for the first time, that the benefits of aerobic fitness extend to the domain of language.”

The study compared tip-of-the-tongue language tests of 28 older adults (20 women and 8 men all about 70 years old) to 27 such tests of adults in their 20s. The tests involved definition-filling tasks: naming famous celebrities and matching definitions with their associated words. Aerobic fitness levels of the participants were measured in the experiment with a static exercise bike test.

The authors found that those who weren’t in the best shape struggled more frequently on the word tasks.

“Older adults free from medical diseases still experience age-related cognitive decline. Significantly, what we found was that the degree of decline is related to one’s aerobic fitness. In our study, the higher the older adults’ aerobic fitness level, the lower the probability of experiencing a tip-of-the-tongue state.” says Seagart. “Importantly, our results also showed that the relationship between the frequency of tip-of-the-tongue occurrences and aerobic fitness levels exists over and above the influence of a person’s age and vocabulary size.”

If you’ve feared that the struggle to find the right words are indicative of a deep memory issue, the authors note you’re likely overthinking.

“This is a misconception,” says Seagart. “Tip-of-the-tongue states are not associated with memory loss. In fact, older adults usually have a much larger vocabulary than young adults. Instead, tip-of-the-tongue states occur when the meaning of a word is available in our memory, but the sound form of the word can temporarily not be accessed.”

Seagart hopes the study will only add to the research that doctors and experts use to promote exercise for all adults.

“Maintaining good language skills is extremely important for older adults. Older adults frequently have word finding difficulties and they experience these as particularly irritating and embarrassing,” she says.

The full study was published online April 30, 2018 in the journal Scientific Reports.


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