Medical Advances

Building Better Memory After Breast Cancer

Building Better Memory After Breast Cancer

Main Article Content

How Exercise May Improve Memory in Breast Cancer Survivors

This article was originally published in the Northwestern University News Center. It has been edited for the Breakthroughs in Care audience.

A new study from Northwestern Medicine found that physical activity is related to improved subjective memory in breast cancer survivors, who often experience memory problems. Subjective memory is an individual’s perception of her memory.

More specifically, the research suggests that exercise may alleviate stress and can benefit breast cancer survivors psychologically. Physical activity was associated with higher levels of self-confidence, lower distress and less fatigue, which in turn is associated with lower levels of perceived memory impairment.

“We found moderate-to-vigorous physical activity actually benefits women psychologically and that can help their memory,” said Siobhan Phillips, PhD, an assistant professor of Behavioral Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, who led the study.

The study’s findings also shed light on the potential origin of memory problems in breast cancer survivors. According to the investigators, memory problems appear to be related to the high stress load cancer survivors experience and may not be specific to chemotherapy or radiation treatments.

“Our research suggests these self-reported memory problems may be emotionally related,” said Phillips, who is also a member of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. “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.”

The scientists looked at memory and exercise in breast cancer survivors in two study arms: one in self-reported data for 1,477 women across the country and the other in accelerometers worn by 362 women. Breast cancer survivors who had higher levels of moderate and vigorous physical activity – brisk walking, biking, jogging or an exercise class – had fewer subjective memory problems. The findings linking improved memory to higher levels of physical activity were consistent across both groups.

Interested in hearing more from Northwestern Medicine? Sign up for the Healthy Tips E‑Newsletter for everything from health and wellness ideas to patient breakthroughs to academic and medical advancements.