New research suggests walking may slow cognitive decline in adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and Alzheimer’s disease.
Investigators from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found that walking five miles per week protects brain structure over 10 years in people with Alzheimer’s and MCI.
The finding was especially pronounced in areas of the brain’s key memory and learning centers said lead investigator Cyrus A. Raji, Ph.D. “We also found that these people had a slower decline in memory loss over five years.”
Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and cognitive skills. According to the National Institute on Aging, between 2.4 million and 5.1 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease.
Based on current population trends, that number is expected to increase significantly over the next decade.
In cases of MCI, a person has cognitive or memory problems exceeding typical age-related memory loss, but not yet as severe as those found in Alzheimer’s disease. About half of the people with mild cognitive impairment progress to a diagnosis of full-blown Alzheimer’s disease.
“Because a cure for Alzheimer’s is not yet a reality, we hope to find ways of alleviating disease progression or symptoms in people who already are cognitively impaired,” added Dr. Raji.
For the ongoing study, the researchers analyzed the relationship between physical activity and brain structure in 426 people, including 299 healthy adults, and 127 cognitively impaired adults, composed of 83 adults with MCI and 44 adults with Alzheimer’s dementia.
Patients were recruited from the Cardiovascular Health Study. The researchers monitored how far each of the patients walked in a week. After 10 years, all patients underwent 3-D MRI exams to identify changes in brain volume, which is a vital sign for the brain, noted Dr. Raji.
“When it decreases, that means brain cells are dying. But when it remains higher, brain health is being maintained.”
In addition, patients were given the mini-mental state exam (MMSE) to track cognitive decline over five years. Physical activity levels were correlated with MRI and MMSE results. The analysis adjusted for age, gender, body fat composition, head size, education and other factors.
The findings showed across the board that greater amounts of physical activity were associated with greater brain volume.
Cognitively impaired people needed to walk at least 58 city blocks, or approximately five miles, per week to maintain brain volume and slow cognitive decline. The healthy adults needed to walk at least 72 city blocks, or six miles, per week to maintain brain volume and significantly reduce their risk for cognitive decline.
Over five years, MMSE scores decreased by an average of five points in cognitively impaired patients who did not engage in a sufficient level of physical activity, compared with a decrease of only one point in patients who met the physical activity requirement.
“Alzheimer’s is a devastating illness, and unfortunately, walking is not a cure,” added Dr. Raji. “But walking can improve your brain’s resistance to the disease and reduce memory loss over time.”
Source: University of Pittsburgh