Exercise could reduce memory loss in breast cancer survivors

July 12, 2016 Providence Health Team

Researchers say women recovering from breast cancer report that moderate to vigorous exercise eases stress, which in turn helps reduce memory lapses.

Many women who have been treated for breast cancer have reported troubles with memory—a problem thought to be related to chemotherapy or other treatments.

“Our research suggests these self-reported memory problems may be emotionally related,” said Siobhan Phillips, assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and lead author of the study. “These women are frightened, stressed, fatigued, tapped out emotionally and have low self-confidence, which can be very mentally taxing and can lead to perceived memory problems.”

What researchers learned

The study, published in the journal Psycho-Oncology, was based on baseline and six-month surveys of 1,477 post-treatment survivors, and by accelerometer readings of physical activity taken from 362 survivors.

The results showed increased physical activity was indirectly associated with a reduction in subjective memory impairment, or a woman’s perception of her memory. Physical activity improved self-confidence and reduced stress and fatigue, paving the way for better memory, according to the researchers.

The physical activity included bicycling, taking an exercise class, brisk walking and running.

The authors of the study called for more research into the relationship among exercise, emotional health and subjective memory improvement.

Why subjective memory impairment is important

Many breast cancer survivors have reported memory problems, even after treatment ends. The authors offer a broad estimate of how many women are affected—from 14 percent to 95 percent—because memory problems can be measured in different ways.

They said cognitive impairment, which includes memory troubles, may result in:

  • Increased difficulty with daily activities
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • A reduced quality of life

The study can be found in Psycho-Oncology.

Dimensions of breast cancer

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2013, the most recent year for CDC statistics, 230,815 women and 2,109 men were diagnosed with breast cancer. The disease killed 40,860 women and 464 men in the United States that year.

Further reading

The nonprofit site BreastCancer.org discusses memory issues in survivors of breast cancer. While it attributes memory loss mostly to certain cancer treatments, it also discusses how survivors can help manage memory problems.

The CDC has a more general page about breast cancer detection, treatments, statistics and the agency’s awareness campaign.

Survivors of breast cancer and people still being treated for the disease should discuss side effects with their health care providers. You can find a Providence provider here.

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