A moderate-intensity walking regimen may reduce symptoms of mild cognitive impairments that are linked to poor blood vessel health in the brain, a new study suggests.
Participants with vascular cognitive impairment, sometimes called vascular dementia, who walked three hours per week for six months had improved reaction times and other signs of improved brain function, British Journal of Sports Medicine reported after a Canadian team carried out the study.
Vascular cognitive impairment, or VCI, refers to mildly impaired thinking or more advanced dementia that's due to the same kinds of blood vessel damage seen with heart disease elsewhere in the body.
VCI is the second most common cause of dementia after Alzheimer's disease.
"It is well established that regular aerobic exercise improves cardiovascular health and cerebrovascular health," the study's senior author Teresa Liu-Ambrose said.
"More specifically, it reduces one's risk of developing chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes (type II), and high cholesterol," said Liu-Ambrose, a researcher with the Aging, Mobility, and Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
Blood flow required
The brain is a highly metabolic organ and to keep it healthy, it requires good blood flow to deliver the necessary nutrients and oxygen to its tissues, she added.
Aerobic exercise may also benefit the brain by increasing growth factors, which are substances made by the body that promote cell growth, differentiation and survival, Liu-Ambrose said.
Liu-Ambrose and colleagues randomly assigned 38 older adults with mild VCI to one of two groups.
One group followed an aerobic training program consisting of three one-hour walking classes each week for six months, while the other group continued with their usual care.
In addition, both groups were given information about vascular cognitive impairment and tips for eating a healthier diet.
Before the exercise program began and at the end of six months, all the participants also had functional MRI brain scans and other tests that measured neural activity and cognitive ability.
People in the aerobic training group had significant improvements in their reaction times on the cognitive tests, and showed changes in their brain activity that made them resemble healthy brains more.
The comparison group showed no changes.
Overall, exercise appears to be a promising strategy for promoting cognitive health in older adults, Liu-Ambrose said.