Walk to Remember: Exercise and Brain Health
< Oct. 20, 2010 > -- Put on your walking shoes – clocking six to nine miles a week on foot may keep your brain healthier as you age.
Researchers who followed nearly 300 older adults for more than a decade found that the more active participants cut their chances of developing dementia and memory problems in half.
"We have always been in search of the drug or the magic pill to help treat brain disorders," says Kirk I. Erickson, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and the study's lead author. "But really what we are after may be, at least partially, even simpler than that. Just by walking regularly, and so maintaining a little bit of moderate physical activity, you can reduce your likelihood of developing Alzheimer's disease and [can] spare brain tissue."
The researchers began tracking the physical activity and thinking patterns of nearly 300 adults in 1989. About two-thirds of the participants were women. At the start, all of the participants, in their late 70s or early 80s, were in good cognitive health. The researchers recorded how many blocks each person walk in a week.
When the study ended 13 years later, more than a third of the participants had developed mild cognitive impairment or dementia.
The study, supported by the National Institute on Aging and published this month in the journal Neurology, concluded that the more someone walks, the more gray matter tissue that person will have a decade or more later in the regions of the brain that are central to cognition.
The brain benefits kicked in for those who walked six to nine miles a week. Walking more than that distance didn';t have any additional impact.
"That's because the size of our brain regions can only be so large," Erickson says.
But inactivity does have an impact, he stresses. "With no exercise, there can be significant deterioration and decay with age," Erickson says.
Steven V. Pacia, M.D., chief of neurology at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, says the study is a good first step toward understanding the possible relationship between physical activity and brain health.
“It stands to reason that being active as we age is going to have a beneficial effect on the brain, just as being inactive is going to have a negative impact," Dr. Pacia says.
But, he adds, more research is needed to prove that. "We don't yet know enough about the use-it-or-lose-it notion with respect to brain and exercise," he says.
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Getting Started on Exercise
Even if you haven't been active, it's never too late to start, the National Institute on Aging says. First, get clearance from your health care provider, who can help you determine what kinds of exercise are best for you.
Your workout should include these four types of exercise:
If you are a beginner to exercise, start out slowly and work your way up to longer or faster workouts. Keep in mind that although a workout should leave you tired, you shouldn’t feel pain when you exercise.
Talk with your health care provider if you have questions or need more information.
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