Niha Zubair, Arivale Clinical Research Scientist, PhD
We’ve all had the experience of having the right word “on the tip of our tongue” and yet being unable to quite get it out. Is this a normal part of aging? Is it a “senior moment”? Or, is this the beginning stages of something worse, like dementia or Alzheimer’s disease?
Healthy aging is associated with a certain degree cognitive decline, though research does not associate a clear, causal association for these cognitive changes. Difficulty with word recall is one complaint that often presents itself over time and is one of the most common complaints relating to language in the aging population.
Because of prior evidence suggesting that people who are in better shape have reduced risks for multiple cognitive issues as they age, researchers from the University of Birmingham decided to look into a possible relationship between aerobic fitness and what they call “tip-of-the-tongue states.”
Researchers measured the aerobic capacities of 28 men and women between 60 and 80 years old by having them ride a stationary bike until they were exhausted. The participants then watched the definitions of obscure words–such as “decanter”–flash on a computer screen. They were told to indicate if they knew and could say the words being defined.
The participants’ ability to identify and say the correct word was strongly linked to their fitness–the higher their aerobic capacities, the more successful they were on the word test. Meanwhile, a group of 20-somethings given the same test had a greater rate of success than the group of older participants.
As incidence of cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease continue to rise, it’s important to understand what we can do to reduce the tendency towards memory loss. Brain health is driven by many factors, including genetics, diet, exercise, sleep, mental health, and lifestyle. Exercise continues to be one of the most important factors in a number of conditions, and “tip-of-the-tongue states” may–as the study suggests–be less apparent with increased levels of exercise and physical fitness.
While we know that regular exercise improves many components of brain health, including both the structure and function of the brain, we don’t know whether exercise benefits our language/word recall over time.
The study, though small, demonstrated a relationship between level of physical fitness and language functioning in healthy, older adults. It also quantified participants’ aerobic fitness using a physiological measure of oxygen uptake from a graded exercise test–the gold-standard objective measurement of aerobic fitness–rather than a less reliable self-report of fitness.
Still, it must be emphasized that the present research is cross-sectional in nature. That means it can’t be conclusively shown that better aerobic fitness is the specific reason some older people can recall words with greater ease.