A small study that fitted 29 young adults (18-31) and 31 older adults (55-82) with a device that recorded steps taken and the vigor and speed with which they were made, has found that those older adults with a higher step rate performed better on memory tasks than those who were more sedentary. There was no such effect seen among the younger adults.
Improved memory was found for both visual and episodic memory, and was strongest with the episodic memory task. This required recalling which name went with a person's face — an everyday task that older adults often have difficulty with.
However, the effect on visual memory had more to do with time spent sedentary than step rate. With the face-name task, both time spent sedentary and step rate were significant factors, and both factors had a greater effect than they had on visual memory.
Depression and hypertension were both adjusted for in the analysis.
There was no significant difference in executive function related to physical activity, although previous studies have found an effect. Less surprisingly, there was also no significant effect on verbal memory.
Both findings might be explained in terms of cognitive demand. The evidence suggests that the effect of physical exercise is only seen when the task is sufficiently cognitively demanding. No surprise that verbal memory (which tends to be much less affected by age) didn't meet that challenge, but interestingly, the older adults in this study were also less impaired on executive function than on visual memory. This is unusual, and reminds us that, especially with small studies, you cannot ignore the individual differences.
This general principle may also account for the lack of effect among younger adults. It is interesting to speculate whether physical activity effects would be found if the younger adults were given much more challenging tasks (either by increasing their difficulty, or selecting a group who were less capable).
Step Rate was calculated by total steps taken divided by the total minutes in light, moderate, and vigorous activities, based on the notion that this would provide an independent indicator of physical activity intensity (how briskly one is walking). Sedentary Time was the total minutes spent sedentary.
(2015). Physical Activity Is Positively Associated with Episodic Memory in Aging.
Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society. 21(Special Issue 10), 780 - 790.