Walk! It Does a Body Good

A new study at the University of British Columbia suggests that a one-hour walk three times a week might improve brain function and thinking abilities in people with vascular dementia, a memory loss disease that has very few treatment options. Dementia is often age-related, but may be brought on by other issues that can damage blood vessels and decrease blood flow to the brain, such as a stroke or heart disease. In previous brain-scan studies, the parts of the brain associated with memory, decision-making and attention showed a higher level of activity in people with vascular dementia. This indicates that their brains work harder when thinking in these areas than healthier brains.

Exercise is known to improve blood pressure and overall cardiovascular health, so the researchers recruited 38 older people who had been diagnosed with mild early vascular dementia.  None of the 38 currently exercised. During the participants’ first lab visit, scientists measured their general health as well as their memory and thinking skills. Next, each volunteer’s brain was scanned while concentrating on a computerized test for attention and decision-making skills. The participants were then randomly split into two groups: One would begin walking sessions and the other, as the control group, would visit the lab for educational classes about nutrition and healthy living.

During the six-month walking program, the participants would take a one-hour supervised walk three times a week. During each session, the walkers were asked to move quickly enough to raise their heart rates about 65%. Teresa Liu- Ambrose, the director of the Aging, Mobility and Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at the University of British Columbia says that most of the walkers completed all the sessions and “seemed to be enjoying the exercise” by the end of the six months.

The final step of the study was to repeat the same physical and brain scan tests the participants had taken at the beginning of the study. The tests showed that the walking group’s brains and bodies had marginally improved. The most obvious improvement was that their blood pressures had generally lowered. This study was short-term.  In the future, Liu-Ambrose and her colleagues plan to use various types of exercise for different lengths of time, but for now, these results are encouraging for people with vascular dementia and their loved ones. A pleasant one-hour walk, three times a week, holds more benefits than just getting a breath of fresh air and some exercise! It’s a workout for the brain as well.

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Theresa Park

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