Get out and walk! A British study suggests that a moderate-intensity walking program may decrease signs of mild cognitive impairment that are linked to poor blood vessel health in the brain, which can lead to dementias including Alzheimer’s Disease. The good new is that South Florida’s fabulous weather, miles of walking trails, and endless beaches combine to make it one of the most walkable areas in the U.S. So get out and exercise your brain!
More on the study:
Participants with vascular cognitive problems, in some cases called vascular dementia, who walked 3 hours weekly for 6 months had improved reaction times and other indications of improved brain function, according to a report in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Vascular cognitive impairment, or VCI, describes slightly impaired thinking or advanced dementia that is brought about by the same types of blood vessel damage seen with heart problem somewhere else in the body.
It is the second most seen cause of dementia, ranking after Alzheimer’s disease.
“It is well established that regular aerobic exercise improves cardiovascular health and cerebrovascular health,” the study’s senior author Teresa Liu-Ambrose told Reuters Health in an email.
“More specifically, it reduces one’s risk of developing chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes (type II), and high cholesterol. These chronic conditions have a negative impact on the brain – likely through compromised blood flow to the brain,” said Liu-Ambrose, a researcher with the Aging, Mobility, and Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
The brain is an extremely metabolic organ and to keep it healthy, it needs excellent blood circulation to deliver the needed nutrients and oxygen to its tissues.
“It is worth noting that in our study, reduced blood pressure (secondary to exercise) was associated with improved cognitive function,” Liu-Ambrose said.
Aerobic workout may also benefit the brain by increasing growth aspects, which are substances made by the body that promote cell development, distinction and survival.
Liu-Ambrose and coworkers randomly designated 38 older individuals with mild VCI to one of 2 groups. One group followed an aerobic training program consisting of three one-hour strolling classes each week for six months, while the other group continued with their typical care. In addition, both groups were given details about vascular cognitive disability and suggestions for consuming a much healthier diet.
Before the workout program began and at the end of 6 months, all the individuals also had functional MRI brain scans and other tests that measured neural activity and cognitive capability.
People in the aerobic training group had significant improvements in their response times on the cognitive tests, and showed changes in their brain activity that made them look more like healthy brains.
The comparison group showed no changes.
Overall, exercise appears to be a promising strategy for promoting cognitive health in older adults, Liu-Ambrose said.
“While more research is needed to better comprehend how it produces its advantages and what elements may affect the degree of advantage observed, there is very little negative effect of exercising,”she said.
Liu-Ambrose explained she does not know if exercise can actually avoid VCI or delay/prevent dementia because there have been no studies to identify that. “However, population based studies do suggest that physical activity does reduce the risk of developing VCI. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, aerobic exercise is very effective in reducing vascular risk factors associated with VCI, such as high blood pressure.”
The study was limited, due to the fact that participants needed to have the ability to walk for approximately an hour, it’s possible they were physically healthier than average, the authors note. The interacting socially associated with the walking class may have likewise had some effect.
“Given the small sample size, one needs to be cautious about interpreting the results of this pilot study. However, it is encouraging to see that the six-month aerobic exercise program improved certain aspects of cognition and showed changes on functional brain imaging,” said Dr. Joe Verghese, director of the Montefiore Einstein Center for the Aging Brain at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.
“The effect of exercise in this, and other studies seems to be on improving executive functions, which are required for planning, thinking and judgment,” Verghese, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.
“The findings, if confirmed in larger studies, may have implications in advising exercise in older patients with vascular risk factors for brain protection,” Verghese said