- It’s annoying when you can’t think of a word that’s on the tip of your tongue.
- According to a new study, the more you exercise, the less this happens.
- It found that a group of older people were better able to recall words if they had better physical fitness.
- There are several possible reasons for this, including the fact that exercise increases the level of oxygen getting to your brain.
If you’re familiar with that feeling where you just can’t quite think of the right word, you’ll know how frustrating it can be. When you feel like the word is on the tip of your tongue, but your brain can’t quite get there.
It’s different to simply not knowing the answer. When something is on the tip of your tongue, you have a strong memory or feeling towards the word, person, or place, and you know it’s in your brain somewhere – but the road is just blocked somehow.
As we get older, these moments get more common. Neuroscience researchers call them “cognitive failures,” and it happens to even healthy adults.
But according to a new study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, you can reduce these “tip-of-the-tongue” moments by doing more aerobic exercise.
Researchers from the University of Birmingham in the UK, the University of Agder in Norway, the University of Leuven in Belgium, and King’s College London conducted a small study of 28 volunteers in their late 60s and early 70s.
They asked them to play word games on a computer and perform aerobic fitness tests on an exercise bike. In a control group, young adults in their early 20s also completed the language game, but not the exercise.
In the word games, participants had to name famous people like authors, actors, and politicians, based on 20 questions. Then they were asked to recall words based on their definitions.
Overall, “tip-of-the-tongue” (TOT) moments were more common in older people than younger, where they thought they knew the word but couldn’t produce it.
But the older adults who had better fitness levels experienced TOT less often than their peers whose fitness was worse.
Katrien Segaert, a researcher from the University of Birmingham who led the study, said: “Older adults sometimes worry that tip-of-the-tongue states indicate serious memory problems but this is a misconception: 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.”
There are a few possible reasons why higher physical fitness is associated with better ability to recall words.
The authors said in the study that previous research on healthy adults suggests that TOT states are linked with the atrophy of grey matter in the left insula cortex – an area of the brain often associated with memory.
Also, many studies have shown how exercise is good for brain function. For example, moderate and vigorous physical activity increases grey matter in areas of the brain associated with movement, speech, and memory. In general, exercise is also linked with improved blood flow and brain health, the researchers said.
Although the study was small, the researchers said their results support the benefits of physical activity for healthy ageing and optimal brain function as you get older.
Further research, they said, is needed to determine whether exercise could increase language abilities
They wrote: “We suggest that such an intervention study would have an active control group that would be exposed to an enriched environment with increased social interaction, cognitive stimulation and language input – similarly to the aerobic exercise group.
“Such an intervention study would thus be able to determine whether aerobic training per se successfully improves language abilities.”