Tip-of-the-Tongue Memory Lapses: Can Regular Exercise Help?

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THE FINDINGS: Healthy older adults who exercise regularly are less likely to struggle for words on the tip of their tongue than older adults who aren’t as fit.

A small study of 28 older adults links cardiovascular (aerobic) fitness with language function-specifically the temporary cognitive lapse that occurs during conversations when we search for a familiar word, called the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon. Researchers gave study participants a group of definitions (“a fruit of the oak tree eaten by squirrels”) and asked them to provide the word being defined (“acorn”). The study found that higher aerobic fitness levels were associated with a decreased probability of tip-of-the-tongue moments during the test. The researchers point to prior research associating a high aerobic fitness level with increased blood flow to the brain and beneficial effects on the brain’s structure and processing function as possible reasons for the association. The findings were published online earlier this year in Scientific Reports.

WHAT ELSE YOU SHOULD KNOW: Having a word on the tip of your tongue is part of normal age-related forgetfulness and typically isn’t an indication of serious memory loss. Having increasing difficulty using the right words, however, might be a sign of mild cognitive impairment; using the wrong word, such as substituting one for another that sounds similar, could be a sign of dementia.

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO: Get plenty of moderate-intensity exercise, such as walking, swimming, biking, or dancing. Aim for at least 150 minutes a week (which, for example, can be split into 30 minutes, five days a week). Physical activity has also been associated with slowing age-related decline of other mental-processing abilities in addition to the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon.