Walking May Reverse Effects of Dementia


Going for a walk every day may improve brain function, especially for those with a brain condition linked to dementia, a new study suggests.

Walking is closely linked to cognitive ability by improving blood flow in the brain. In the British Journal of Sports Medicine, newly published research has shown that walking can prevent and reduce blood vessel damage, prohibiting and possibly reverting the effects of vascular cognitive impairment, or VCI.

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“It is well established that regular aerobic exercise improves cardiovascular health and cerebrovascular health,” said lead author Teresa Liu-Ambrose. “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.”

Liu-Ambrose is a researcher at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver in the Aging, Mobility, and Cognitive Neuroscience Lab. She and her team brought together 37 older adults in order to gauge the effectiveness of aerobic exercise in their condition.

The condition in question, VCI, is classified as mildly impaired thinking and is the second most common cause of dementia. It occurs as a result of blood vessel damage in the brain, similar to the damage that occurs in the heart and causes cardiovascular disease.

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Of the 38 individuals in the study, all had been diagnosed with VCI. These adults were split into two groups. One group was given an aerobic exercise regimen to add to their routine, while the other group continued with their normal habits. The exercise group was told to take three classes a week of aerobic walking, with each class lasting one hour. The findings were gathered over six months, during which the participants were given healthy tips and nutritional guidance.

Compared to the non-exercise group, the group that partook in walking classes three times a week showed remarkable improvement in cognitive function, as found in an MRI scan and other neural testing. The non-exercise group did not show any changes in behavior or cognitive health.

“While more research is needed to better understand how it brings about its benefits and what factors may impact the degree of benefit observed, there is minimal negative consequence of exercising,” said Liu-Ambrose.

Related: Walking Could Keep Our Eyes Sharp As We Age

This pilot study does not confirm that aerobic exercise such as walking can prevent VCI, but it does show that it holds promise in improving blood vessel health in the brain and keep further damage from occurring. Other studies have shown that exercise improves brain health, but none have specifically studied the effects on any forms of dementia. The authors of the study encourage fellow researchers to undertake more in-depth studies, using a larger sample size of different ages and medical abilities.

“The findings, if confirmed in larger studies, may have implications in advising exercise in older patients with vascular risk factors for brain protection,” said Joe Verghese, Director of the Montefiore Einstein Center for the Aging Brain. “…it is encouraging to see that the six-month aerobic exercise program improved certain aspects of cognition and showed changes on functional brain imaging.”