Fitness

Physical activity can cut the risk of Alzheimer’s and improve your health. Here’s everything you need to know.

Take your brain for a walk

Take your brain for a walk

by IAN SAMPLE

Regular brisk walks help slow down the shrinking of the brain and the faltering mental skills that often accompany old age, as reported in The Guardian.

Scientists conducted a study on 100 men and women aged 60 to 80 that revealed that taking a short walk three times a week increased the size of brain regions linked to planning and memory over the course of a year.

A 2-3% increase in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus was enough to offset the steady shrinkage doctors expected to see.

That may seem modest but, according to Professor Kirk Erickson, a neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh, “that’s actually like reversing the age clock by about one to two years.”

“While the brain is shrinking, we actually saw not a levelling out but an increase in the size of these regions.”

According to The Guardian, individuals who took part in the study scored higher on spatial memory tests, and some reported feeling more mentally alert. “They feel better, they feel as if the fog has lifted. Anecdotally, it seems to benefit these cognitive functions,” Erickson said.

You don’t need highly vigorous physical activity to see these effects. People are misled to believe they need years of vigorous physical exercise.

He recruited more than 100 adults who confessed to doing little if any exercise in their daily lives. Half were randomly assigned to walk for 30 to 45 minutes three days a week. The rest spent a similar amount of time doing stretching exercises.

Medical scans showed minor increases in the two brain regions in both groups. But the effect was greater in the walkers, Erickson said at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“With modest amounts of exercise, we were able to increase the size of these structures that typically deteriorate and precede the cognitive complaints that often come in late adulthood,” Erickson said.

“You don’t need highly vigorous physical activity to see these effects. People are misled to believe they need years of vigorous physical exercise.”

“The results suggest that brain and cognitive function of the older adults remain plastic and highly malleable. There is not this inevitable decline that we used to think it was.”

Scientists are unsure what changes in the brain underpin the increases in size of the two regions, or how long the improvements last. Exercise is unlikely to stave off the brain’s decline for long, but it could delay the inevitable decline and slow the onset of dementia.

“If we measured these people for a long period of time, we’d probably be slowing the decline rather than completely mitigating it. But it might slow it down for a long period of time. We cannot say it’s the magic-bullet cure for Alzheimer’s. There isn’t one.”

For more on the benefits of exercise, see:

Cardiff University study, published December 9, 2013
Monitored the health habits of 2,235 men over a 35-year period has confirmed exercise significantly reduces the risk of dementia.

For simple exercises for people with dementia and their carers, click here.



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