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Exercising May Help with 'Chemo Brain'

A young woman talks with her doctor
(Image credit: <a href=''>Woman and doctor photo</a> via Shutterstock)

CHICAGO — Breast cancer survivors often report changes in their thinking and memory abilities following chemotherapy. Now, a new small study suggests that aerobic exercise may help some women with these problems, which are collectively referred to as "chemo brain."

The study included 20 women who were on average 53 years old and had been treated for breast cancer within the past three years. All had reported thinking and memory problems. The researchers instructed half of the participants to exercise for six months, while the other half didn't exercise and served as controls for the study.

The participants also filled out questionnaires about their thinking and memory abilities, and their impact on their quality of life. The researchers also used standard psychological tests to measure the participants' performance on various tests of their mental abilities before and after the study.

The results showed that compared to the control group, the women who exercised had improvements in several parts of the psychological tests, including verbal fluency, visual attention and switching between tasks. They also reported better quality of life, and improvements in their thinking and memory, according to the study, presented Sunday (June 1) here at the annual meeting of the American Society for Clinical Oncology. [7 Cancers You Can Ward Off with Exercise]

The findings suggest that exercising has the potential to improve some of the cognitive symptoms reported by breast cancer survivors, the researchers concluded. Although the study was small, the results could help researchers design future studies, the team said.

Chemo brain, which is also described as foggy brain or mental cloudiness, includes symptoms such as memory lapses, disorganized and slower thinking, and having trouble multitasking. People who suffer from this condition may have difficulty concentrating or finding the right word to finish a sentence.

It is not fully clear how chemotherapy and radiation affect the brain. Many people do recover from the condition, doctors say.

Other conditions, too, may lead to a foggy brain. For example, hormonal changes during menopause or pregnancy can cause temporary memory problems in women.

Some studies have suggested that doing brain exercises, such as solving puzzles, may help some people who suffer from foggy brain.

Email Bahar Gholipour. Follow us @LiveScience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.

Bahar Gholipour is a staff reporter for Live Science covering neuroscience, odd medical cases and all things health. She holds a Master of Science degree in neuroscience from the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris, and has done graduate-level work in science journalism at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She has worked as a research assistant at the Laboratoire de Neurosciences Cognitives at ENS.