Alzheimer’s is a devastating disease not only for the individual afflicted with it, but also for the family members who care for their loved ones with the disease and witness the progressive decline in function that turns people into shells of their former selves. There might be some good news, though, for those in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and for those who wish to reduce their risk of getting it. A study published in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society suggests that improved cardiovascular fitness leads to increased cortical (brain) thickness in both those with mild cognitive impairment and healthy elderly without cognitive impairment. These positive changes in the brain with improved fitness may reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
This is the first study to show improved fitness can improve cortical thickness of the brain in adults with mild cognitive impairment.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and affects five million Americans. Age is its biggest risk factor with first symptoms typically occurring after age 60. The risk of Alzheimer’s doubles every five years after age 65. It is a progressive disease characterized by mild memory loss in early stages but ultimately involves language and thought processes affecting one’s ability to manage activities of daily living.
Exercise and Cognitive Impairment
The study looked at the effects of moderate intensity (15 to 20 minute per mile pace) walking on a treadmill four times a week in previous inactive adults ages 61 to 88. Cardiorespiratory fitness improved an average of 8.49% in both those who were healthy and those with mild cognitive impairment.
Atrophy of the brain’s cortex correlates well with the symptoms of cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s. Those who had the greatest improvement in cardiorespiratory fitness and the greatest gains or improvement in cortical thickness in both groups of participants. Those with mild cognitive impairment showed greater improvements in two areas that show accelerated changes in Alzheimer’s – the left insult and superior temporal gyrus.
In a previous study it was shown that exercise improved neural efficiency during memory recall in those with cognitive impairment.
How or why improved fitness affect cortical thickness is not entirely known. But, we do that exercise improves blood flow to the brain delivering more oxygen and nutrients. Plus, it does affect neurotransmitter production all of which may protect the brain from atrophying with aging.
Based on this study it does not take much exercise to reduce your risk of cognitive impairment – simply walking four times a week. So do it!