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Can regular walking reduce dementia risk?
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A new American study recently reported in the Guardian indicates that regular brisk walks can slow down the shrinking of the brain associated with old age, thus benefiting mental ability. A study found that people aged 60 to 80 who took a short walk three times a week over a year long period had an increase in size of brain regions linked to planning and memory. The walking stimulated an increase in size of the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus by 2% or 3%, over the year; this size increase was sufficient to offset normal brain shrinkage seen in people of this age group. The prefrontal cortex and hippocampus typically deteriorate in late adulthood which is when cognitive complaints such as dementia often begin.
Professor Kirk Erickson, a neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh explains that while a 2 to 3% increase may sound like a small, actually an increase of this size is “like reversing the age clock by about one to two years”. People who took part in the study scored better in spatial memory tests and some indicated that they felt more mentally alert. Professor Erickson said many felt better mentally and emotionally and that the regular walking lifted the “fog” they were feeling.
Erickson picked 100 adults who did little if any exercise in their daily lives for the study. Two groups of 50 were randomly split. The first group walked for 30 to 45 minutes three days a week; the other group spent a similar amount of time doing stretching exercises.
After one year, brain scans of the two groups demonstrated minor increases in prefrontal cortex and hippocampus areas in both groups. However, this effect was significantly greater in the walking group according to professor Erickson at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Erickson said "with modest amounts of exercise, we were able to increase the size of structures that typically deteriorate and precede the cognitive complaints that often come in late adulthood." He explained "you don't need highly vigorous physical activity to see these effects. People are misled to believe they need years of vigorous physical exercise. But it only needs to be moderate, and not even for that long.” He explained that older people should not think there will be “an inevitable decline that we used to think there was."
Scientists do not yet know how exercise increases size of the two brain regions or how long the improvements last. It is however important to emphasise that exercise is unlikely to stave off the brain's decline long term, but it can help delay the inevitable decline brought with age and may slow the onset of dementia.
More detailed information and leaflets on dementia and Alzheimer’s is available for free from Whelehans and for information and support contact the Alzheimer’s Society of Ireland at www.alzheimer.ie or 1800 341 341