A pilot study was recently published which claims that increased physical activity helped boost breast cancer survivors’ memory and cognitive function.

It’s known that increased physical activity improves cognition in cognitively impaired or even healthy adults, but the benefits for cancer survivors were undetermined. Many breast cancer survivors report poor memory or reduced ability to concentrate after treatments indicating a decline in brain function.

The study was conducted by a team of 9 physicians and specialists and was designed to examine the effect of a 12-week program of increased physical activity on half of the group of women, compared with a control group of the other half, who were given articles for reading that addressed nutrition, women’s health and cerebral health. The randomized trials selected physical activities for each participant based on individual interests and capabilities while having them wear devices such as the Fitbit One activity tracker to record minutes of activity.

Researchers sent the data collected to extract activity levels for analysis while also providing encouragement to participants through phone calls and emails. Results concluded that engaging in at least 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity weekly showed more than double the improvements in brain processing speed compared to the control group. Further, women who were two years or less from cancer diagnosis were four times more likely to show improvement in how fast the brain could process information after exercise.

One of the lead researchers is Sheri Hartman, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, and co-director of the diet and physical activity shared resource at UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center. She stated, “The women who participated in the physical activity intervention experienced a significant improvement in cognitive processing speed and some improvements in their perceived mental abilities. This study supports the idea that exercise could be a way to help improve cognition among breast cancer survivors.”

This initial study was conducted on just 87 predominantly well-educated, non-Hispanic white women and researchers have stated that greater diversity in the cancer population is needed for more conclusive results.

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